Steve Obsitnik op-ed: Seniors are key to Connecticut's longevity

Steve Obsitnik
Steve ObsitnikCarol Kaliff / Carol Kaliff

“I have lived in Connecticut my entire life. I was born here, worked here and raised my family here. But I am afraid I can’t afford to retire here. I am afraid I won’t be able to see my grandkids as often as I’d like because I will be forced to move somewhere more affordable.”

These are the words of Pam, a near-retirement age nurse I met at a recent event. Like many others, she has seen Connecticut change over the course of her lifetime. Pam’s story is unfortunately all too common.

We have all heard too many people planning how and when they will get out of Connecticut. Connecticut loses an average of 38 people every day! With each departure, Connecticut’s death spiral spins faster: People leave, lowering taxes paid to the state, causing Hartford politicians to raise taxes and increase debt on the remaining residents and businesses. This prompts more people and businesses to leave. We know what happens next.

We need to stop the spiral. The answer is simple: Imagine if Connecticut was able to keep and attract people. The hard part is how.

One solution starts with keeping our senior citizens. Currently, there are 567,300 people over age 65 living in Connecticut. This is 15.8 percent of our population. Keeping seniors in our state is good for families, smart public policy, improves the economy and strengthens our community. Seniors help keep families together. They provide child care, support charities and pay taxes — vital services Connecticut needs now more than ever. Why let these benefits leave for another state?

Many seniors and people approaching retirement are leaving Connecticut because the current policies coming from Hartford have priced them out of the state. Increasing cost of living, a broken transportation system, high taxes and reduced services are a reality. Add a promise of warmer winters and you have a recipe for exodus. Governors around the country realize this. They have implemented incentives to attract Connecticut’s seniors. For example, Florida does not tax Social Security benefits, military pensions or have an estate tax. Likewise, Georgia reduces property taxes for seniors.

It is time to fight back.

I imagine a brighter future when Connecticut’s seniors see reason to stay. We have an opportunity to create a unique, national model. A strategy of healthy living and aging that is central to our economy. This will grow Connecticut industries, universities and towns. Imagine if Connecticut arranged its priorities and policies to make this the place to retire. The result would be a transformed Connecticut:

Seniors grow jobs: Health care is an important part of our local economy. Connecticut’s health care industry has grown 41 percent from 1990 — 2014. This includes home health aides, physical therapists, nurses and many more important jobs. If seniors leave, these jobs leave too. If more seniors stay, job opportunities grow.

Seniors grow innovations: Connecticut is world‐renowned for life sciences. We are the home of UCONN Health, Yale‐New Haven’s Geriatric Assessment Center and many more assets. In every industry, new products and services need access to customers and feedback. I have spoken with many seniors who would gladly support these efforts. They have the knowledge, interest and time to give back. Seniors can participate in and accelerate these innovations that help to create good-paying jobs.

Seniors grow communities: Our universities, cultural and town resources create opportunities to engage seniors, accelerate learning and create new businesses and jobs along the way.

Specifically, we have a unique opportunity to re‐define life‐long learning and integrate the model within our towns. Imagine a student going to class and picking up Pam along the way as an Uber driver. This allows Pam to audit the class and maybe guest lecture or tutor based on her nursing experience. This would make us rethink housing, transportation and education. Call it the “early bird learning special.” The opportunities that emerge are only limited by our imagination.

Seniors are our bridge to the future as we prepare for a new generation. This helps to bring security to the short- and long-term. With the right policy and work ethic, Connecticut can be the place where residents, like Pam, not only want to work and raise their families, but also a place they can afford to retire and spend the rest of their lives.

Steve Obsitnik of Westport is a business leader, entrepreneur and educator. He is a co‐founder of Imagine Connecticut.