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Posted: April 01, 2012

The Economist: Those Baby Boomers are getting older

Aging population presents problems – and opportunities

Tucker Hart Adams

For decades the baby boom generation has been a big asset to Colorado. The 26 percent of the population born between 1946 and 1964 moved here in droves back in the 1970s and 1980s, providing us with a young, highly educated, entrepreneurial work force. Today, Colorado ranks sixth highest among the 50 states in baby boomers and fourth lowest in people 65-plus.

But like the rest of us, the baby boomers are getting older. As we were reminded endlessly a couple of years ago, the first boomer turned 65 in 2011 and, over the next two decades, someone will become eligible for Medicare once every nine seconds.

Bringing it closer to home, in the next 10 years Colorado’s senior population will increase by more than 60 percent, three times the rate of overall population growth. Or look at it another way: When I moved to Colorado in 1970, there were slightly more than 2 million people in the state. By 2020 there will be almost 1 million people 65 and over.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the senior issue.

• Where will we find the gerontologists and nurse practitioners? The home health-care workers? The personal assistance workers trained to help with bathing, dressing, eating, laundry and recreational activities?

• How will we provide mental health services staffed with professionals trained to work with seniors? Non-institutionalized seniors have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

• What about all of the veterans who spent time in combat in Vietnam and Iraq and Cambodia? There is a high incidence of late onset post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when veterans retire after a career marked by workaholic behavior that kept symptoms at bay.

• How will we provide transportation for people who can no longer drive to the grocery store, the doctor or social activities?

• What about the problem of inadequate savings? Almost 32 percent of respondents to a Harvard-MetLife study defined themselves as Strugglers/Anxious, with little or no money saved for retirement, which they view as a time of hardship.

• How will we pay for Medicare and Social Security when there will only be three people working for each retiree, compared to more than six per retiree today? Will we be back to a time when each of us has to provide for two elderly parents plus Aunt Susie, who never had any children?

I explained to a group of students in Denver a couple of years ago that the solution is simple – they will simply have to pay 30 percent of their income to Social Security and Medicare rather than the 15 percent we pay today. They were not amused.

While it is easy to be overwhelmed by these issues, it is important also to focus on the opportunities an aging population presents. Retirees are a basic industry, one that brings new dollars into a community.

The income stream flowing from their pensions, investment income and savings is no different from the impact of a company producing widgets for sale outside the region or a tourist attraction that entices spending from nonresidents.

This income stream is where the multiplier has its impact, creating jobs not only in health care, but in real estate and retail and teaching and a host of other fields for the rest of us.

Colorado’s universities and community colleges provide training and degrees in the myriad services the elderly will require, from health professionals to social workers to graduate degrees in gerontology. At a time when 16 percent of our residents who want to work are either unemployed or underemployed, this offers a wonderful opportunity for meaningful, well-paid jobs.

The economic development opportunities and opportunities for local entrepreneurs are almost endless. They include:

• companies that design shopping and living spaces for the over-65 group

• new products for aging eyes and stiff fingers

• elderly-friendly tourist venues (remember that tourism is one of our largest basic industries, and the elderly often have time and money to travel)

• medical and financial products

The list goes on and on.

We need a new vision of aging and the challenges and opportunities it presents. We have time to meet them. But there is no time to waste!

Tucker Hart Adams, president of the Adams Group, monitored and analyzed the Colorado economy for 30 years. She can be reached via her website, coloradoeconomy.com.

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