Opinion: Growth in senior population requires attention to health care needs

By Denali Johnson

Colorado has one of the fastest growing aging populations in the U.S. Currently, one in nine Coloradans is a senior citizen. By the year 2030, that will increase to about one in five. While Colorado historically has had one of the smallest percentages of seniors, our annual growth rate is now 3 percent above the national average.

The increasing number and percent of older adults in Colorado presents new opportunities and challenges to communities across the state. With the baby boomer generation aging, a larger number of active older adults will be available to contribute to the community as volunteers, board members, community leaders, employees and caregivers. However, an increasing number of frail older adults will need services to meet significant health care, housing, transportation and other needs. Certain areas of Colorado will feel this growth more than others. In San Miguel, Garfield, Eagle, Grand, Summit, Douglas and Elbert counties, the change in the 65+ population from 2010 to 2030 is expected to increase by more than 250 percent. Only in Lincoln County is the percent change expected to be less than 10.

Colorados seniors are generally healthier than seniors in other states, but they still have significant needs. Following national trends, Colorados older adults are living longer and healthier lives. In fact, there are currently about 650 Coloradans 100 years old or older. Coloradans have the highest rate of physical activity compared to older adults in other states, and were near the top for older adults reporting good physical and mental health. However, our seniors are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol than younger Coloradans. Nationally, 80 percent of seniors have at least one chronic condition to contend with and that means increased health care needs in order to stay active.

Mental health challenges are also of particular importance for our seniors. While the great majority of Colorados seniors reported zero days of poor mental health in the past month, we cannot ignore the need to keep them socially engaged. In 2006, the Center for Disease Control did a nationwide study on mental health and aging, and the results showed that older Coloradans feel less socially-supported than middle-aged Coloradans. While less than 5 percent of 50 to 64 year old Coloradans reported not getting the social and emotional support they needed, nearly 8 percent of 65+ year-olds felt that way.

Another important aspect of seniors health is dental health, and there again Colorado ranks well overall. However, 18 percent of Colorados seniors have lost all their natural teeth. Having missing teeth can cause problems speaking and eating and can influence a persons choices in food quality and quantity. While Americans paid out-of-pocket for approximately 50 percent of all dental care expenses in 2000, people age 65 and older paid more than 75 percent of their dental expenses. For low-income seniors, taking care of their oral health may be so cost-prohibitive that it results in decreased quality of life.

While Colorado is making an effort to keep older Coloradans at home and independent as long as possible, we know that the majority of Americans will need long term care. Long term care varies; it can be informal care from a spouse or family member, in-home care from a paid provider, a residential care facility or a nursing home. The new generation of seniors is demographically different than previous generations, which makes it difficult to predict what kind of long term care we will need more of and what its financial impact to the system will be.

Baby boomers are generally wealthier, meaning they may be able to afford private care and relieve some pressure on the public assistance system; however, they also have smaller families, and that could mean less informal care is available to them. Help from adult children currently reduces nursing home use by 60 percent among disabled adults over 70, but if family help declines, it will mean an increase in seniors reliance on other forms of care.

While it is unclear how the system costs will eventually play out, we do know that long term care services are expensive for seniors and families. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average annual cost of a single room in a nursing home in Colorado is over $80,000; for an assisted living facility, it is nearly $37,000.

Furthermore, a recent study found that nationally, seniors with Medicare coverage still paid nearly $40,000 out-of-pocket in the last five years of their life. These are big numbers, and we need to be thinking critically about how we can provide affordable care to our older Coloradans in need.

Just like with other health care challenges we face in Colorado, we will need creative solutions to address the issues facing our older adults. We should continue to encourage active and healthy lifestyles, and look for ways to keep our aging boomers at home and independent. The silver tsunami will bring a variety of new opportunities and challenges and its time to act to ensure that we are prepared and can appropriately care for a generation that has done so much for Colorado.

Access the full CCMU infographic on Colorados refugees at www.ccmu.org/seniors

Denali Johnson is project associate at the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.