It’s boom time for senior services

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As the first baby boomers arrive at the traditional retirement age of 65, senior services are in growing demand and in flux.

The senior demographic is expected to double in Minnesota within 25 years, and the needs of this growing population will include in-home assistance, helping retirees stay in their homes and employment training, as many seniors are forced to stay in the workforce to make ends meet.

Workplace woes

Walk through the door of Quality Career Services, 2515 Wabash Ave., near the intersection of I-94 and Highway 280 and one is likely to be greeted by Jill Yelton, a graduate of the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) who can draw on 50 years of secretarial and administrative expertise.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor under Title V of the Older Americans Act, SCSEP aids 55-and-over jobseekers with career counseling, retraining and placement.

“When I lost my regular employment, I was placed pretty quickly,” Yelton says. Her first post was at a senior high-rise. Loreta Stampley, employment counselor and SCSEP coordinator, is also a graduate of the program.

Quality Career Services has been around for a quarter of a century, but the recession has taken a toll. Funding has been cut substantially. Would-be participants must earn less than $12,000 a year to qualify for the program. (There are more than 400 people on the waiting list in Ramsey County alone.) Once enrolled in the program, participants work an average of 20 hours a week in minimum-wage trainee jobs. Many have no other income.

“We do a good thing for the seniors,” Stampley says, but when some participants reach the program’s 48-month durational limit, they’re at a loss for what to do next. “When their time is up and they have to get off the program, they have no income,” she says.

There is a lack of jobs open to older workers, Stampley notes. This past winter, she phoned local employers hopeful of setting up a senior job fair. “I called Cub, Rainbow, Menards, CVS,” Stampley says. “The only one interested was Cub Food Centers. Most had no jobs.”

While Stampley notes the dislocated-worker program is doing a bit better lately in the country’s fragile recovery, her program “has been slow getting people hired.”

The Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College released a report in November 2010 called the “The New Unemployables” that found unemployed seniors are less likely to find new employment or are involuntarily working part-time jobs. Many seniors lack health care benefits and find age discrimination in their job searches, according to the report.

Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the average period of unemployment for those who are 55 and older was 40.6 weeks, compared to 31.6 weeks for younger job seekers.

Skills training

Meanwhile, older jobseekers at Quality Career Services take “career pathway” training to improve workplace skills. A 61-year-old surveyor encountered at a workshop on how to ace a job interview has years of job experience, a good education and licensure in a professional field. These days he is grading papers online for an educational service.

Another veteran of the senior temp-work turnaround, a 68-year-old woman, complained about a pattern of piecemeal employment when what she really needed was a full-time job.

The pain extends to those slightly younger. The tail end of the baby boom generation is around 45. Unemployment counselors warn that anyone more than 40 may be considered “older” these days.

Services for those living alone or in poverty

According to the latest figures, some 80,000 people—more than 16 percent of Ramsey County residents—live in poverty. Thirty percent of 65-plus residents in the county live alone. The percentage is even higher among minorities.

Senior support services have managed to meet demands, from rides to the doctor to Meals on Wheels, despite tiny staffs and limited budgets. They have done this by pooling and sharing resources, by keeping paid staff at a minimum and by partnering creatively with health, community and faith-based organizations.

Yet holes in the senior safety net are showing, even with increased demand for the services. The shuttering of the St. Paul Senior Chore Service in January may be a harbinger of things to come. (Until the end of last year, the St. Paul Senior Chore Service, based out of the St. Anthony Park neighborhood, matched young volunteers with seniors who needed help with such things as raking, painting, repairs, clean up, snow removal and mowing.)

“They don’t have that number to call,” laments Mary Hayes, the program coordinator of Saint Anthony Park Area Seniors, whose business model is mostly self-help and volunteer: neighbors helping neighbors, building community using donated time.

Residents in the Park Bugle readership area can count themselves lucky: Hayes’ group in St. Anthony Park, and its counterpart to the east, Como Park Living at Home/Block Nurse Program, are the classic success story. As the first program of its kind in the state—celebrating a 30th anniversary last year—Saint Anthony Park Area Seniors provided a model for other locales.

Business is up: Hayes points to a growing cadre of clients in St. Anthony Park taking advantage of the program’s range of services, including rides to health appointments, daily exercise classes and low-cost social outings. In last year’s annual report, her program had a record 370 seniors attending the organization’s second-Saturday speaker series.

She also admits things may look different to boomers, starting with herself. Approaching the magic number of 65 this year, she is working more hours than ever, she says. Yet she sounds like a typical boomer when she says, “I don’t think of myself as ‘old.’ I don’t think of myself as a client of a block nurse program.”

Jody McCardle of the Como Park program says, “The silver lining of the cloud is, baby boomers tend to volunteer. We have nurses, nurse practitioners, teachers, chaplains. We have volunteers who provide three to four hours with a senior.”

The caveat? “I bet in a year we serve 250 seniors. We could serve more,” McCardle says. While her program provided 200 free rides—“a big need,” says McCardle—the program fielded 500 requests.

The point of the block nurse programs, according to McCardle, is to help seniors who want to stay in their homes do so safely. Hands-on, in-person help also connects neighborhoods and families.

“This is a small thing,” Hayes says, “but some seniors get to a point where they find it difficult to make phone calls. I’ll go do a home visit … and just get the job done.”

For more information

  • St. Anthony Park Area Seniors: 651-642-9052
  • Como Park Living at Home/Block Nurse Program: 651-642-1127
  • Quality Career Services: 651-647-9322
  • Senior Linkage Line: 1-800-333-2433

D.J. Alexander is a freelance writer who lives in Falcon Heights.