Joey Bunch, Colorado Politics

Armed with optimism and ideas, advocates for the state’s aging population want Colorado policymakers to wake up and build a berm against the rising tide of retirees, when they’re taking out more from the public coffers than they’re putting in.

Every year, the legislature talks about aging and passes a few bills aimed at studying the problem and encouraging folks to do better. This year, a search of the hundreds of bills filed so far this session yield nothing extraordinary — three bills, compared with a package of six on pets, including one to regulate dogs on restaurant patios.

I’m right to be worried about attention to detail.

The words lawmakers use to describe the problem are inaccurate. They call it a “silver tsunami.” A tsunami rises fast and there’s nothing you can do about it. This problem has been coming for a long time, and there’s plenty policymakers could do, if they were to get busy.

Older folks are coming, fast or slow. For fiscal planners to do nothing is dereliction of duty, if your job, after all, is to plan.

Put another way, our elected leaders must share a foolish optimism of the squirrel who fails to gather nuts. We have lot of nuts in government. The first Baby Boomers turned 65 in 2011.

The State Demography Office predicts the number of Coloradans older than 65 will rise 77% from 2015 to 2030, and jobs in the (high-priced) health care industry will soar. Colorado has the third-fastest aging population among the states, trailing only Alaska and Nevada.

“We need to do something about it, but it’s been so easy to put it off for so long, because you can say, ‘Oh, it’ll be here in a few years,’ or ‘We don’t need to do anything about it now, because it’s not on us, yet,’” Andrea Kuwik, a public policy analyst on aging for the Bell Policy Center think tank in Denver, told me Monday afternoon. “Now we’re right in the middle of it, and now is the perfect time to start doing something that should have been done before.”

There’s not much cooking at the Capitol, however.

At least they have a sweeping attack plan on the problem put together by Kuwik and the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative with the help of 80 collaborators over 18 months.

The Actionable Aging Policy Agenda comes with nearly 30 recommendations, including investing in the workforce to care for an aging population and local councils on aging to tailor programs to communities.

Kuwik is optimistic.

“Now we feel this energy we haven’t felt before,” Kuwik told me. “This is becoming such a real problem for people, and they’re seeing the problems but also the opportunities that come with aging. This feels like a moment that’s right to begin doing something.”

The recommendations just make sense:

  • Build an economy that addresses the growing demand for quality, affordable health care for older Coloradans — whether that means workforce training or tuition forgiveness.
  • Accommodate family members caring for older loved ones with a paid family leave program — a move that’s been stymied for two legislative sessions now.
  • Ensure work for those who need to or want to remain on the job past traditional age.

Janine Vanderburg, the director and “chief catalyst” for social change at Changing the Narrative Colorado, told me I’m thinking about this all wrong. It’s not a problem, she said. It’s a solution.

Her organization is out to end ageism in the workplace and offers free training and recognition to those who make the effort.

“Businesses are struggling to get workers,” she said. “They’re struggling to get good talent. How ridiculous is it not to consider older workers are part of your talent mix.”

Yet when I hear Colorado lawmakers talk about the workforce training, they’re almost always talking about high school kids and college graduates.

“People are living longer and we have a declining birth rate in Colorado,” Vanderburg pointed out. “If a Colorado employer thinks he’s just going to get more young’uns to replace young’uns, there’s not going to be enough young’uns there.”

Politicians have always given older voters plenty of lip service. President Donald Trump said he wouldn’t cut Medicare and Social Security, then sought to do just that this month.

In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Jared Polis had 5,915 words to say. Thirty-six were dedicated to retirement.

“That’s why we’re taking action to help folks retire with dignity, and I’m supporting the Colorado Secure Saving Plan Board recommendations, which State Treasurer Dave Young has been leading, to help more Coloradans save for retirement,” Polis said on Jan. 9.

That came as a non-sequitur after talking about rural development and immediately after saying he was keen on “keeping Colorado the No. 1 state in the nation for industrial hemp.”

The speech used the word aging just once — in relation to Democrats’ paid family leave plan, in case a younger family member needed to take time off.

Let’s hope our politicians are thinking about more than elections when it comes to how we live when we’re receiving from rather than feeding into the public coffers.

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