DENVER — Between its beautiful scenery and ample outdoor activities, for a long time, Colorado has been known as a state with a young, active population. State data reveals that population is aging, however.
“Our 65 plus population is growing, hands down. And it's growing fairly fast,” said State Demographer Elizabeth Garner.
Colorado is second only to Alaska in the U.S. for the fastest growing 65+ population. Over the past decade, the 65+ group has grown by more than 317,000 in Colorado to more than 800,000 people.
Between 2010 and 2020, the 65-74 age range was the quickest growing demographic in the state. In the next decade, it will be the 75-84 age range. The number of people entering the 65+ range, meanwhile, is expected to slow slightly.
Overall, though, Colorado still has the sixth lowest number of 65+ people compared to other states.
Garner says a big part of the reason for the increase is because Colorado saw a lot of baby boomers move to the state in the 1960s and 1970s who have chosen to stay here.
Meanwhile, residents are having fewer children overall. Also, despite popular perception, fewer people are moving to the state.
“We're seeing a slowdown in birth. We're seeing an increase in death. Some of those were COVID death, but some of them due to aging. And we've seen migration slowdown,” Garner said.
Births in the state peaked in 2007 but have now dropped to below the national average. While the state is not in a natural population decline like Florida, the population is not increasing significantly.
Last year, the state’s net migration was 15,000. It saw 63,000 births, while its deaths were 49,000. Teen birth rates are also declining overall, according to state data.
All this data is playing out in tangible ways, like more school consolidations.
For employers, the changing demographics present a challenge — more people are leaving the workforce and retiring, but the gap is not being filled by younger adults. The hurdles will only continue to grow over the next decade if something doesn’t change.
“If we are going to create new jobs, we're going to need migration. So, there is this balance that we need to start looking at with job growth and migration, which then goes hand in hand with housing,” Garner said. “We do need to have these comprehensive discussions about where does Colorado go.”
The changing demographics also mean a shift in state services and priorities. That’s where Yolanda Webb, director of the Office of Adult, Aging and Disability Services for the Colorado Department of Human Services, comes in.
“Part of our mission in the Office of Adult, Aging and Disability Services is to ensure that there is a comprehensive service delivery system for older adults,” said Webb. “We want to make Colorado a state where it's great to grow up, but it's also great to grow old.”
This past legislative session, Webb worked with state lawmakers to modernize the Older Coloradans Act, which had not been updated in 59 years. The result was more responsibilities for the Colorado Commission on Aging and the expansion of the commission itself.
Webb created a task force and advisory board for state agencies to come together next year and figure out what resources and infrastructure are needed for the growing aging population.
Webb also worked with lawmakers to approve funding opportunities for Area Agency on Aging (AAA’s). The state oversees 16 of these agencies that provide everything from home meals to transportation services to medication management. The state was able to secure $15 million in grant funding this year.
“One of the decision items that we ran through the Joint Budget Committee this year was for Adult Protective Services. And we know that when you see an increase in any population, that there's also an increase in the risk that's associated with that,” Webb said.
She’d like to see an additional $1.6 million dedicated to APS next year alone, including $1.3 million from the state and $300,000 from local partners. The agency is also looking to add more home care services.
As APS looks to expand services, a big hurdle is the tight labor force, particularly certified nursing assistants and registered nurses.
“We are offering some retention initiatives for our staff to stay around, and we're looking at salaries, as well. And so, it is a problem,” Webb said.
For now, her focus is building up the state’s infrastructure to adapt as the state’s population continues to age and change.