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A man walks past Angel’s Window Tint, 3853 Morrison Road, in the Westwood Neighborhood of Denver, CO, on January 26, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Janine Vanderburg led 42 workshops across the state in 2018 to learn about the concerns older adults had about aging or ageism.

One issue became clear. Adults were working longer — and wanted to — but they often felt discrimination in the workplace or during the hiring process.

“People said, ‘That workplace discrimination issue that you’re talking about, that difficulty of finding a job? Happened to me, happened to my dad, happened to my partner,’” Vanderburg, director of Changing the Narrative, said about what she heard at every single session. “We started realizing that we couldn’t just talk about reframing aging to older people. We needed to talk about reframing aging to employers, and if you will, reframe the older worker in their mind.”

She shifted Changing the Narrative, an age-focused initiative of the Rose Community Foundation and the NextFifty Initiative, to prioritize age-friendly workplaces and the value of older adults, who offer experience and mentoring. She would talk about the state’s low unemployment rate and the difficulty of finding enough workers. In doing so, she found employers were willing to consider hiring older adults.

Janine Vanderburg, director of Changing the Narrative, an age-focused initiative of the Rose Community Foundation. She’s educating employers throughout the state on age-friendly workplaces that value the expertise and experience of older adults. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

The topic of aging and the impact on jobs, housing, transit and health care is getting more attention in Colorado, especially by policy and lawmakers. 

It’s not a surprise, though. The state’s population of people who are 65 or older is the sixth smallest in the nation, but it’s also growing quickly. Now Colorado, long one of the youngest states in the nation, is one of the fastest aging. 

This week, The Bell Policy Center, known for advocating for the working poor, plans to unveil its first aging policy agenda, which touches on supporting older workers or workers who support older adults. Later this month, a committee created last year by the legislature will present its report to the General Assembly on the feasibility of a retirement plan for workers without one. 

“Aging issues ought to be a policy priority and not something shoved to the side,” Vanderburg said. 

Colorado demographic data for years has pointed to a maturing population. Americans are living longer and working longer. But creating public policy on aging just wasn’t “top of mind” for many potential proponents because they were too focused on other policies, like early childhood education or livable wages, said Andrea Kuwik, a Bell Policy analyst.

“We’ve known about our aging demographics and about this demographic shift in our state for years,” Kuwik said. “We’ve known about the need for this change. … The time was probably yesterday and so let’s really get on the ball and start acting on these things now.”

Bell Policy’s agenda includes increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for preventative services. It recommends the state hire someone permanently in an office-of-aging-type role to coordinate state aging policies (the Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging, created to look at the state’s aging population, sunsets in 2022). It wants additional funding public-private programs like Area Agencies on Aging found in local communities. It aims to strengthen age-discrimination laws and push for creating tax credits for businesses to hire and train older workers. 

MORE: Older Coloradans are working longer and demanding an updated set of tech skills

But it’s not about targeting a certain age group, such as those 65 or older, Kuwik said. It’s about making life easier for all ages, by doing things like expanding paid-family and medical leave to unpaid caregivers who often leave jobs to care for an ailing parent.

“Often people just think, ‘Oh, we don’t need to think about this’  or ‘It’ll only impact older adults’ or “I’m not old’ or ‘I don’t have an aging parent yet,’ but really, this really impacts everyone,” she said. “We want this to be a topic of conversation that people are thinking about more.”

Elizabeth Garner, the state’s demographer, has been pointing to this approaching reality for years. She shared more statistics: 

  • From 2010 to 2018, Colorado had the second-fastest growth among people age 65 and older, behind Alaska and ahead of Nevada, Idaho and Arizona.
  • Between 2017 and 2018, Colorado had the fourth-fastest growth rate in that age group, behind Alaska, Idaho and Utah.
  • Colorado has the sixth-smallest population of folks who are 65 or older. Utah has the lowest number.

“We don’t have a ton of older people, and that’s why we’re increasing in that 65-plus age group quickly,” Garner said. “We’ve got a lot of 64-year-olds.”

But she also points out that everything about the state has been growing. Colorado added 1.5 million people in the past two decades and the population is expected to reach 5,842,076 this year. By 2050, Colorado’s population is projected to be at 8 million people.  

As Coloradans grow older, that magnifies issues aging adults already face related to health care and housing. Aging in place may be popular because people want to live in their own homes, but it’s not terribly efficient, especially if there’s a retired adult who needs daily medical help living alone in a large house. A home health worker can do that job, but such workers, who are in great demand, would be able to take care of more people in a facility.   

And while people age 65 and older tend to have the highest rate of home ownership, there’s still about 8% living in poverty, she added. Factor in the 65-plus growth rate and even if the poverty rate stays the same, there will be many more of them.

“One thing that’s hard for people is thinking about only one point in time instead of a lifetime,” she said. “Creating opportunities for 20-year-olds will help them when they’re 60.”

Age-friendly policies

Promoting policies for older adults has long been a raison d’être for AARP.  A current national campaign focuses on drug prescription prices.

Locally, the organization has focused on age-friendly communities, which take transit and housing options into consideration and include 14 cities and counties in Colorado, said Bob Murphy, state director for AARP Colorado.

“That encourages stakeholders and policymakers to plan their communities through that age-friendly lens. And that can mean again removing barriers, it can mean civic engagement, it can mean opportunities to more jobs. It can mean the kind of zoning that allows people to live near where they work or play, it can meet a lot of things,” Murphy said. “But the important thing is that people are planning through that age-friendly lens and in doing so, they’re creating a community that’s friendly to people all ages. Removing a barrier for an 80-year-old also removes one for an 8-year-old.”

Aging association AARP puts itself where the people are. In 2018, it sponsored the opening night party at Denver Startup Week. “As soon as people say, ‘Why is AARP involved in Denver Startup Week,’ we’ve won. We get to explain why,” said Bob Murphy, state director of 700,000-member AARP Colorado. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

That age-friendly mantra was also a reason that AARP is backing a proposed retirement plan called the Colorado Secure Savings Plan that would be administered by the state. The state would facilitate the plan — not subsidize it — to make it easier for workers in Colorado to set up a retirement account if their employer doesn’t offer one. If they change jobs, the account goes with them from employer to employer. The board appointed by Gov. Jared-Polis will present its feasibility report to the General Assembly on Feb. 28 and a bill could be introduced in March, Murphy said. 

“Only 40% of Colorado workers have a retirement plan in place at work,” Murphy said. “And we know that you’re 15 times more likely to save for retirement if you do have a plan at work.”

Some policymaking also looks at what is already working. Bell Policy Center mentioned the Partnership for Age-Friendly Communities, which started in 2013 to bring more awareness to the demographics in Larimer County. 

What the organization found was that people didn’t know where to look for help. So it teamed up with Larimer County’s Office on Aging and Colorado State University Extension to create the Senior Access Points of Larimer County. They launched a website of vetted resources at plus a phone number that people can call for help.

And what struck them was who was looking for help, said Jim Becker, executive director of the Partnership for Age-Friendly Communities, which promotes better transit, home safety and aging in place.

“The older adults are here, but the kids that are trying to watch out for aging mom and dad might live in a different state. They don’t even know to call the local phone number. They just go online,” Becker said. “So when we look at the analytics on the web, stuff comes from all over the country and we’ve come to realize that’s why.” 

It’s become a community resource, especially in the more remote areas of the county where residents “all have helicopter insurance up there because if they have a medical event, they need to get choppered out to get to a hospital,” Becker said. And communities in Northeastern Colorado and the Western Slope are building a local resource site or exploring similar partnerships.

The great thing about it is that the topic is finding support for aging issues from all sides of the political spectrum, he said. “We’re all going to face this. It doesn’t really matter whether our leanings are progressive or conservative.”

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...