Aging: What’s the plan?


My three-year old daughter is a bit precocious, and perhaps a little ‘type-A.’ Since the child could string words together in a sentence, she has started most days asking me, ‘Mommy, what’s the plan?’ Most days, I give her a detailed account of our itinerary, from sun up to sun down.

Opinion: Aging: What’s the plan?

As I think about our state’s preparedness for a demographic shift in which the number of seniors will outnumber children in this state, I often ask a similar question to our policy makers: “What’s the plan for meeting the needs of our senior population?” In less than four years the baby boom generation will begin to turn 65, and our aging population will dominate the demographics in this state. And, while the state has gone so far as to launch an initiative called “Transform 2010” in 2006, we have yet to pass any comprehensive plan to meet this growing need.

Let’s be candid: aging issues are not sexy. We avoid discussion about how to care for our parents and grandparents until the issue is personally unavoidable. But, each our lives will be personally touched in some way by senior care issues in the next decade. It will impact our economy, our state budget, and our health care system.

Some may argue that we have things pretty good in Minnesota with regard to the care for our parents and grandparents. In some regions of the state, seniors have a multitude of choices for that range from single family dwellings in which they receive assistance with meals, chore services, transportation and intermittent care to state-of the art care centers. Yet, in other parts of the state, especially deep rural regions, providers struggle to keep the local care center open, and don’t have adequate resources to invest in other home and community-based services. Our system is based on 1960s facilities, and our method for paying for it is outdated for a 2011 demographics.

But, you ask: this is Minnesota, right? We help our parents and grandparents stay at home and take care of them. We don’t place them in a facility for some one else to care for them. Our plan to care for seniors must include adequate support for family caregivers. In 2006, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research group released A Profile of Frail Older Americans and Their Caregivers. (Richard W. Johnson and Joshua M. Wiener, February 2006.). The report’s findings identified the financial and emotional pressures of caring for our seniors that many families face. And, it points out that, as the baby-boomer generation ages, issues such as the divorce rate and decreasing birth rates are threatening the critical role of our families in care giving.

Increasing support for family caregivers cannot be the only plan. As the number of family caregivers shrinks in Minnesota and the care needs of our seniors increase, we must also invest in a network of services throughout the state.

In recent years, lawmakers have failed to properly invest in older adult services. Minnesota’s caregivers, the keystone to quality care, are asked to work at low wages and accept diminishing employee benefits as care centers struggle to stay afloat. For many care center workers, the “cost of living” adjustment approved by lawmakers in 2007 is less than 14 cents an hour. I gave my child’s daycare provider more than a 14 cent increase last year, and she doesn’t provide type of complex medical care that is now routinely provided in care centers. But then again, I would question what my daycare provider would cut if I only gave her a 14 cent increase.

Minnesota doesn’t really have a plan to address this major public policy issue. Nor do lawmakers seem to have the appetite to even discuss the issue. Yes, education, transportation and property tax relief are all important issues to this suburban young professional. But, I want to live in a society that also fulfills its obligation to provide the best quality care for the people who built this state and all of the opportunities it offers.

In public policy debates at all levels we need increasingly ask our elected officials to look at senior care issues. It’s not too late to make a difference.