Census data: Aspen’s getting older, fast
June 3, 2011
ASPEN – The 2010 census confirms what many already know: Aspen’s senior community is growing rapidly and the percentage of young adults is declining.
Meanwhile, there is a slight increase in the category of residents age 19 and under. The implication is that while they are growing up here, most of them aren’t staying once they reach working age.
“The numbers tell us that we’re on the same path that we were 10 years ago and that is, a significant loss of the young adult population. There are fewer opportunities for them and a lessened ability to get a foothold in the community and stay,” said Mayor Mick Ireland, who for years has devoted much time to studies of population data.
Census figures from the last 20 years show that in 1990, 375 people, or 7.4 percent of Aspen’s 5,049 residents, were 60 and older. In 2010, that figure grew to 1,248 people, or 18.7 percent of 6,658 residents.
Conversely, the 20-39 age group in 1990 represented 2,629 residents, or 52.1 percent of the city’s population. By 2010, the total had shrunk to 2,085 people, or 31.3 percent, despite the annexations of the Burlingame and Aspen Highlands areas a few years before.
Interestingly but perhaps oddly, Ireland noted, the “school age population” is up, despite the decline in men and women “in their prime childbearing years.”
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He said the reason for that could be the annexations. But another plausible explanation is an increase in the “in-migration of older folks with children.”
To make his point, he noted that the 2000 census showed the number of Aspen children between birth and 4 years old to be 224. By 2010, the number of children between the ages of 10 and 14 – those who made up the birth-to-4-years-old category a decade earlier – was recorded as 313.
Those 89 extra kids had to come from somewhere: either a result of the two annexations, from families moving in from outside the area or a combination of both. The figures suggest the same trend among youths when examining other child-age groups as well.
Ireland said the data suggest that more should be done to attract or keep young adults in Aspen, perhaps through expanded affordable-housing initiatives or other workforce incentives. The city is considered one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. Young workers are sorely needed here, he said, to support the tourism-based economy as well as serve the expanding percentage of seniors in the area.
However, he added, more precise study of the data is warranted, perhaps through examination of hospital birth-rate information or block-by-block demographic assessments.
Marty Ames, who has held the job of Pitkin County director of senior services for nearly 26 years, also examines the figures, but from a county perspective.
She said the latest census shows the county, Aspen included, had 3,407 residents who are 60 and older. That’s a demographic that’s expected to grow over the next decade as more local baby boomers hit the threshold of age 60 and medical advances allow people to live longer.
“We’ve known for many years that the percentage increases in the senior population have far outpaced the general population, so that’s not a surprise,” Ames said. “It is getting more attention now and it’s a much bigger number.”
Ames said from her standpoint, the increase suggests the need for more planning in order to meet the needs of present and future seniors. That means everything from assisting city and county staff with revisions to the 2011 Aspen Area Community Plan and its chapter on the “Lifelong Aspenite” to working with local organizations, such as the nonprofit Aspen Valley Medical Foundation, on the possible creation of a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC).
CCRCs are modern retirement facilities that can offer seniors various options on one campus such as independent living, assisted living, special care and skilled care. They allow seniors to remain in the same area should their health-care needs change.
“The need [for a CCRC] in the county has been identified for many years,” Ames said. “The land is the big upfront cost.”
The recent economic downturn has had a serious effect on local seniors, she said. It’s a common misperception that all older Aspenites are financially independent, Ames said.
“We have all these retired working people who are on the fence,” she said. “All it takes is one big dental bill or one car problem and that puts them over the edge into hard-to-deal-with emotional and financial situations. We see more needs for help just to meet basics. And that may have been speeded up [by the recession] from the curve we would have expected.”
Realizing a few years ago that the senior population was growing, the county employed a licensed clinical social worker to work with seniors on a one-on-one basis as they face various difficulties, Ames said. “This person may help them see that they are eligible for assistance that they didn’t even know they were eligible for,” she said.
Ames, who works for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the department’s mission is to help seniors live independently within their homes for as long as possible. And when they no longer can live on their own, the department’s goal is “to have the facilities and services in place” to assist those who need help.
Judging from the census trends, the need is not going away.
“We’ve got seniors who are homeless,” Ames said. “And we’ve got seniors who worked all their lives in service jobs and they’re living on the edge. Times are tough and they’re struggling.”