Liz Volz moved to Durango six years ago to take care of her mother and hasnt left since. The 63-year-old is active and dabbles in nutritional consulting, bicycling and Buddhism. She lives in Cedar View Apartments, which provides subsidized housing to people 62 or older, and often gets help from La Plata Countys senior outreach nurse to fill out paperwork and find health-related resources.
She doesnt need much, but the help shes gotten has been invaluable, Volz said.
If youre going to have an aging population, its in the best interests of everyone to keep us as healthy as we can be for as long as we can be, Volz said. Society is going to pay for it one way or another.
Volz is one of thousands of baby boomers in the area who will soon reach and surpass age 65, launching a dramatic demographic shift that will dominate domestic public policy for the next 20 years. The initial signs of that change have been most drastic in the West, with Colorado seeing some of the largest increases. The five counties in Southwest Colorado have seen growth ranging from 23 to 130 percent, U.S. Census data shows.
Baby boomers are members of the large generation born in the prosperous post-World War II years from 1946 to 1964.
The bubble of aging boomers is only just beginning to manifest itself, said Elizabeth Garner, the state demographer. When the full cohort reaches retirement, it will have a major impact on the states economy, especially in the areas of medical care and housing.
Its not good or bad its just very different, Garner said. A lot of people havent realized how big the implications are.
An attractive place to retire
The shift will be more dramatic in Colorado because the states population historically has tended to be young.
Colorado is the fourth lowest in its senior population, but the sixth highest in the number of baby boomers, many of whom moved here in their 20s, 30s and 40s, Garner said. The State Demography Office predicts households that are 65 and older will grow more than 70 percent between 2010 and 2020.
Locally, the number of people in the five-county region of Southwest Colorado who are older than 60 is expected to increase by 17 percent by 2015, according to figures provided by the San Juan Basin Area Agency on Aging.
People who work with seniors say part of the regions influx may be retirees moving to be closer to their children.
This area of Colorado is attractive to those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, said Christina Knoell, executive director of the aging agency, a nonprofit that gets mostly state and federal funding. But when those people start to age, they need certain services, especially medical services, Knoell said.
Increased demand for medical services are just one implication of the states aging population. Older people generally spend less, and their consumption demands will likely change from goods to services, which affects sales-tax revenue, Garner said. Per capita income taxes also will drop as people in this demographic start to retire, she said.
Older people generally arent as supportive of property-tax increases for government-provided services such as schools, said Robert Sonora, associate professor of economics at Fort Lewis College. Instead of education, there will be more of a need for medical services and ancillary services such as hospice care.
Federal and state funding also will have to be funneled into care for the elderly instead of education and infrastructure, which could have an impact on economic growth, Sonora said.
As the population ages, housing demands change as well, from larger multi-story houses to single-level condos or small houses, Garner said. In La Plata County, those housing options are slim, especially for low- and middle-income seniors, said Sheila Casey, director of the Durango-La Plata Senior Center. There are waiting lists for Durangos newest subsidized senior housing complex, Cedar View Apartments.
The Sunshine Gardens assisted-living facility is able to keep up with demand for now, but that could easily change as the senior population grows and more people bring their older parents to this area, said Trisha Kellogg, marketing director.
The story is different for Medicaid residents though, Kellogg said. Demand is constant for the centers 20 Medicaid-designated beds, but because reimbursement rates dont cover the actual costs of living there its not financially feasible for Sunshine Gardens, or any assisted-living facility, to add more of those beds, Kellogg said.
Impairments related to age prevent many older people from driving, so their need for public transportation increases, Garner said. Because Durango serves as a hub for many areas in Southwest Colorado, there is a need for improved public transportation so rural seniors can access regional health-care facilities, Knoell said.
Tracy Davis, a senior outreach nurse who provides free medical care for seniors in their homes, said more than half of the 1,000 clients she has served cant drive.
Clients are often living alone, often in rural areas, hard of hearing, are vision-impaired, cant drive a car, are on assisted devices for walking and are often on oxygen, Davis wrote in an email describing her work. Dental work is one of the hardest for seniors to access because its not covered by basic Medicare and Medicaid, service providers said.
Davis grant and county-funded position was created four years ago to fill a gaping need for medical services among seniors, she said. Her position ends this year and will be replaced by a nurse navigator program that will focus more on people with chronic diseases.
Casey said she worries the new program may leave gaps in service for seniors because it focuses less on their needs in general.
While they may require certain community resources, seniors also have a lot to add to a community, Casey said.
Most of the senior centers volunteers are seniors themselves, she said. Seniors take up advising roles as well, providing valuable insight on decisions involving policy and services related to that population, said Knoell.
There remains a great need for support of the areas senior services, Casey said. Steady support from United Way and the city and county joint sales-tax fund has been crucial for the Durango-La Plata Senior Services Center to keep its doors open, she said.
State and federal funding for the center has already been cut by $80,000 in the past two years. Meanwhile, population growth and the toll of the economic recession has caused demand for the centers services to rise at least 10 percent per year, she said.
As the nations older population grows, there may be a need to think outside the box to create sustainable systems for seniors, Volz said.
Theres going to be a whole lot more of us, she said. We need innovative thoughts because the system thats in place may not hold up under the strain.