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Colorado's Aging Boomers Aren't A 'Silver Tsunami,' They're The Coming Normal

Colorado Department of Local Affairs

The coming age shift in Colorado's population is often referred to as the "silver tsunami." Older adults certainly aren't fans of that term - and the metaphor doesn't even hold up, say policy experts.

Wade Buchanan is one of them. The 55-year-old head of the Bell Policy Center admits his hair is turning gray, but that's not why he dislikes the term.

"The metaphor implies, first of all, a terrible tragedy, which it is not," said Buchanan. Plus, a tsunami sounds like something that will overwhelm us, and then recede.

"And that's not what's happening here."

Sitting at a computer in his Denver office, Buchanan pulls up a graph showing generations of people in Colorado, and their populations.

The graph animates, going from 1990 to 2050. If you think of the baby boomer generation as the crest of the "tsunami," one thing stands out: the wave never breaks. Starting in about five years, the number of adults over 60, rather than being a small percentage of the population, holds its own with all the other age groups.

"What we're looking at is a population that wants to age in place and remain in Colorado. They have been living an active lifestyle that's part of the reason they moved to the state."

This is a huge shift, said Buchanan. When he was in his 20s, there were nine younger adults for every senior. Now, there are five or six. Soon, there will be three or four.

Rather than a tsunami, the coming shift is more like sea level rise. It's a new normal that the state will be living with for the foreseeable future. And like sea-level rise, it's a shift that needs to be planned for, said Buchanan, who is also a member of a legislatively-mandated task force on aging.

One of the most dominant characteristics of Colorado's aging population is the desire to stay in their homes, a term called "aging in place."

Roberto Rey, of AARP Colorado, said 78 percent of the organization's members want to stay in their home as they age.

"What we're looking at is a population that wants to age in place and remain in Colorado. They have been living an active lifestyle that's part of the reason they moved to the state," said Rey.

To encourage that, Rey said one push is to change building codes, so that homes are built to be easier to navigate as one ages.

"The typical home of the past has been built with a healthy 35-year-old in mind," he said. "And an age-friendly home doesn't look that much different and it doesn't cost that much more to build if you make the changes in the design phase as opposed to trying to retrofit the changes into an already existing home."

But that policy change hasn't passed yet in Colorado. Another difficulty, Rey said, is the state's limitation on raising taxes. The Taxpayer's Bill of Rights and similar constitutional measures keep the legislature from spending money on initiatives that would help Coloradans age in place.

"In Colorado, our state budget has tended to remain the same because of TABOR even though needs and the population of this state has been increasing," said Rey.

Another sea-level rise sort of issue is the state's increasing Medicaid bill, said Bell Policy Center's Buchanan. Unlike Medicare, which is paid by the federal government, the state shares in Medicaid costs, many of which come from paying for long-term care for those without other options. From 2009-2013 the amount of Colorado's budget that went to Medicaid increased by 50 percent. And that's going to keep going up.

"We are very very focused and deeply deeply concerned about how we are going to fund the state obligation to Medicaid. That obligation is going to double and triple over the next several decades and we don't have a fiscal system that is prepared for it," said Buchanan.

The challenges are extensive, but not insurmountable. Having more active retired people around could also be a boon for the state; educated retirees may be able to offer their experience and expertise in second careers or volunteer activities.

Like preparing for sea-level rise, though, gathering political will to take action before a crisis hits will be an ongoing challenge.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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