A booming economy and collaboration with the private sector helps Colorado serve its seniors better than any other state.
Colorado’s burgeoning young population is not the only group to benefit from the state’s flourishing economy and resulting culture boom: Colorado is the Best State for Aging, according to a new U.S. News ranking.
At a time when the nation is aging rapidly, presenting challenges to care for the 65-and-older population, Colorado has made it a priority to ensure it serves its older residents well. As a result, Colorado has one of the healthiest 65-and-older populations of any state, and it provides its residents with some of the best Medicare and nursing home quality in the nation.
Colorado’s older population is growing faster than most others: In 2010, 10.9 percent of Colorado residents were 65 or older, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. In 2016, that percentage jumped to 13.4 percent, though still lower than the national average of 15.2 percent.
By 2030, the Colorado State Demography Office predicts the 65-and-older population will rise to 1.27 million, a 77 percent increase from 2015. Much of this growth comes from the state’s residents who are aging in place. A majority of older residents have lived in Colorado for more than 20 years, and many say they don’t plan to leave.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who has been in office since 2011, attributes the state’s No. 1 ranking in part to a strong collaboration among the government, the private sector and local municipalities.
Colorado also performed well in many health-related categories. New Hampshire and Hawaii are the only states with a greater share of older people who say their health is good or better. About 2 in 3 older people in Colorado are able-bodied, and just 5 percent of Colorado’s older people say they are experiencing frequent mental distress, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The active lifestyle in Colorado could contribute to better health outcomes for seniors, says Mindy Kemp, director of Colorado’s Division of Aging and Adult Services. Just 22.3 percent of older people have had no physical activity in their leisure time in the past month; fellow outdoorsy states Washington and California are the only two to rank higher than Colorado for this metric, according to CDC data.
“It’s hard to tell where [staying healthy at an older age] is an individual’s choice or the services provided to them,” Kemp says. “In communities like Boulder, there’s a lot of outdoor activities, great recreational activities, community engagement, senior centers and things like that. So I’m sure that helps, but you also need people to be willing to take advantage of that.”
The state also offers a Regional Care Collaborative Organization, which connects members of Colorado’s Medicaid Program with providers. “[The program] does a really good job of very cost-effectively providing a medical home for people of lesser means,” says Hickenlooper, who has been at the forefront of a bipartisan governor resistance to the two Affordable Care Act replacement bills proposed by Republicans in recent months.
Hickenlooper, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and a handful of other governors say the GOP bills would threaten their states’ abilities to provide health insurance to residents. And in Colorado, which expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, seniors could be adversely affected because they account for a large percentage of the state’s Medicaid costs. People with disabilities and seniors accounted for 59 percent of the program’s cost in 2014, though they only made up 20 percent of enrollees.
Colorado’s top-notch health care comes with a hefty price tag: The state’s health care costs, and cost of living, are higher than in most other states.
Colorado places in the middle of the pack for assisted living facility costs, at an average of $4,900.17 per month. The problem is exacerbated in growing metro areas such as Denver, where housing affordability is a major challenge. As young people move to the state and “are getting paid pretty well to work in this economy,” housing prices are jumping, according to Hickenlooper.
“Denver is growing, and there’s a huge need for housing, so you see people who could potentially lose their rental housing, and that’s a problem,” says Angela Cortez, communications director for AARP Colorado, which serves roughly 340,000 members who are 65 or older. “Those are the challenges of a growing community, and yes, if they go into nursing care [or assisted living], it is very expensive.”
While stakeholders and advocates agree that affordable housing is a pressing issue for the state, Colorado’s leadership has introduced initiatives to help older residents stay in their homes longer, including a property tax break for residents who are 65 and older and have lived in their homes for at least 10 years. The state already has one of the lowest property tax rates in the country.
Jill Clark, a 65-year-old Colorado Springs resident, and her 72-year-old husband have benefited from the property tax break for several years, and she estimates that about half her neighborhood also enjoys the tax break.
Conversely, the state’s fast-growing economy prevents seniors from being pushed out of the workforce. The unemployment rate for people over 65 is lower in Colorado – 2.5 percent – than the national average of 3.8 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“We need every able-bodied worker we can get,” Hickenlooper says. The state has programs to make sure people with varying levels of disabilities get training to take their place in the economy. “Sometimes those are older people,” he adds.
In addition to its economic challenges, Colorado must address the needs of its senior residents who live in less-accessible areas.
“What’s interesting about Colorado is we have some urban and some rural and frontier areas, so the needs are different when we go around the state and ask about the challenges,” Kemp says, citing the difficulty of serving larger populations in metro areas and getting home-delivered meals to older people in more remote areas.
Kemp and Jody Barker, chair of the Colorado Commission on Aging, say the state’s agencies have worked with Colorado’s local municipalities to “do more with less” and creatively address age-related challenges. For example, Kemp’s department is considering an initiative to help older people who no longer drive get to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store or anywhere else. A driver who volunteers to take the older person to their destination would receive a voucher from the senior, which they could then exchange for cash from the department.
“When we have that level of support already at that upper level, then it enables us … to move forward doing the work that serves the seniors in our community. It’s been fantastic,” says Barker, who also directs the Central Colorado chapter of the national Alzheimer’s Association.
Colorado’s 65-and-older population is also benefiting from the fact that the state’s young population is growing rapidly. Over the last 10 years, Clark says her neighborhood has become significantly younger and more eclectic, adding that “millennials are looking to live in places that aren’t cookie cutter.” Now, she enjoys a brewery down the street and an arts scene downtown that “adds to the quality of life.”
Hickenlooper says he thinks some older people are moving to Colorado to be with their grandchildren, and is proud how fewer people are moving away from Colorado for retirement than from other states.
“One of the things that helps you [live] longer is to be part of a community and to know your neighbors and have relationships with them,” Hickenlooper says. “What that really tells you is that should be a primary goal for any state government to try to encourage as many seniors as possible to age in place.”
Editor’s Note: Growing old in America today looks far different than it did 10 years ago. Older people are working throughout their golden years, are living longer, and many are choosing to age in place. As baby boomers hit the 65 and older mark, the share of seniors in the U.S. is rising drastically. This series explores what it’s like to age in 21st century America, and the issues officials must address to keep up with the nation’s changing demographics and culture. U.S. News determined which states are best serving their growing senior populations in a new Best States for Aging ranking.