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As Colorado Ages, Lawmakers Are Starting To Look At The Road Ahead

Jim Hill

According to state and federal census figures, Colorado's population is expected to grow by an additional 2.3 million people by 2040. That's going to significantly impact the way we live – from traffic congestion, to water, to quality of life.

Most noticeably will be a shift to an older population.

Bente Birkeland reports from the state capitol

Colorado has one of the youngest populations in the country. A large number of young adults in their 20s and 30s have historically migrated here and continue to do so.

"In Colorado we currently don't have a lot of people over the age of 65," said state Demographer Elizabeth Garner. "The reason is when we migrate people to the state, we usually migrate them at a younger age."

But over the next four years, Garner's office estimates more than a quarter of a million residents will turn 65 – an aging population that has its own unique needs.

"We all feel a real sense of urgency about it, there are things that are happening that need to be addressed sooner rather than later," said Barbara Raynor, head of the Denver based nonprofit, Boomers Leading Change in Health.

Raynor also serves on a statewide aging task force, which is studying everything from transportation, economic impacts, to family caregiving and safety net programs.

"We're taking a holistic view of aging and how to create an environment that is great for people who are aging, no matter what age they are," said Raynor.

The group will report back to the Colorado Legislature in fall 2016. The real test will then be to see if lawmakers do something with the recommendations – or if they sit on a shelf.

"I don't think there's anybody that focuses on this area, although I think this area kind of bleeds into a lot of other areas," said Representative Lois Landgraf (R-Colorado Springs).

Landgraf said she works a lot on issues around the developmentally disabled and those with chronic illnesses, which cross over into the aging issue. She passed a bill during the 2015 session to study the needs of respite care workers; those are people that relieve full time caregivers. Landgraf also wants to change how Medicaid pays for home modifications – which she hopes will help seniors and others with mobility problems, stay in their homes.

"Which saves everybody money," said Landgraf. "And it's the right thing. If they want to stay in their homes they should be given benefits and services that help them stay in their home."

Landgraf hasn't introduced that bill yet, but is hoping to do so during the upcoming session. Even if bills come up, passing substantive policy is tricky in a presidential election year, especially with Democrats controlling one chamber, and Republicans the other. Senator Nancy Todd (D-Aurora) introduced two aging-related bills in the last session that were defeated by the other party.

"We're all getting older so it shouldn't be a partisan issue," Todd said. "Are we really looking out for and being as proactive as we need to?"

One proposal would have studied retirement security [.pdf], which opponent's thought was an overreach for government to study. The other would have expanded the number of people required to report elder abuse [.pdf].

"I think a lot of it is we're having a lot more open discussions about child abuse and recognizing that reporting and getting help makes a difference," said Todd. "We need to do a very similar kind of thing for our elders."

Despite the bill's failure, lawmakers in both parties have made strides on trying to beef up elder abuse laws. In 2013, the state increased the types of mandatory reporters and added penalties for not reporting abuse. Boomers Leading Change in Health director Barbara Raynor is glad for the overall discussion on aging, she said many policies that help older people end up helping everyone.

"We often say 'what's good for someone who is in a wheelchair or has a walker is also good for someone who is in a stroller or a on a tricycle;' so walkability, access to healthy foods in your neighborhood that are affordable," said Raynor.

As lawmakers work to assess future needs, they must also find ways to pay for any new policies they may pass. That may be the biggest challenge of all.

Copyright 2015 KUNC

Bente Birkeland
Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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