Susan Brower has cooked up quite the “reveal” to startle audiences as she talks about the aging of Minnesota.
The state demographer, speaking last week at a Prior Lake church, drew gasps when she showed how many Minnesotans have become seniors each decade over the past 50 years or so — and then filled in the blank spaces in the near future, showing how those numbers are exploding.
“This is discontinuous with our history,” she said. “We’ve never seen an aging trend like this before, and it’s compressed into a really short period of time.”
By the time she was halfway through examining the implications of this trend, as costs rise and budget pressures build, she could feel the room sagging.
“When I give these talks, it’s always all cheery at the beginning, and then I bring people down,” she said. “These are serious trends. We won’t be able to continue funding things as we have in the past. That’s just reality, because of this aging trend.”
Scott County, she hastened to add, is today one of the most youthful in the state. Indeed, she was speaking in the same week that two Scott County school districts were seeking referendums to build classrooms.
But everyone in the county is getting 12 months older each year, she said, and before long even Scott will look like rural communities, with a lot more wrinkles and a lot more challenges stemming from that change.
The session, which also featured two other experts, was organized by FISH, Families and Individuals Sharing Hope, a community collaborative that seeks to tackle social problems by bringing faith-based communities and others together.
“This is impactful data,” said FISH Director Beth Loechler. “We have some work to do.”
Unless society is to choke off spending on education and other priorities, speakers agreed, the challenge is to figure out better, more cost-efficient ways to do things.
Just in the next few months, said Nan Just, of the Metro Area Agency on Aging, experiments are getting underway in aging suburban areas to organize volunteers to help deal with one of the most costly challenges, that of transporting people who no longer feel comfortable driving.
“Transportation always surfaces as a need,” she said. “There are buses, but as people age the preference is door-to-door transport. Who can use the bus and who can’t? People want to get a ride when they need a ride, a service more like a taxi, to get to the doctor tomorrow or to grocery stores tomorrow. There are some models out there that could work.”
Officials have been warning for years that even with user fares, those rides end up being highly subsidized compared to buses or light-rail trains.
There was pushback from the audience on some points, including the balance between seniors’ desires for first-class service and society’s willingness to pay.
There was also surprise when Brower showed how much the growth in the state’s labor force will decline as people retire.
Mark Themig, Scott County’s parks director, asked her to clarify that she was projecting that decline despite the continued arrival of immigrants.
The answer was yes: “We are projecting similar rates of immigration as in the past,” meaning no uptake is in sight to compensate for the loss of working-age native-born Americans.
In other settings, she has argued for plumping up those immigrant numbers by, for instance, making it easier for foreign students at local colleges to stay after they get a degree.
For society the challenge of aging, Brower said, arises from the fact that as we age, medical costs jump, disabilities jump and use of care facilities jumps, yet vast numbers of baby boomers, members of the approaching senior tsunami, have admitted in surveys that they actually have no clue as to how those costs will be paid or just expect the government to take care of things.
On the local level, said Sarah Leonard, of Scott County, government is reacting in a variety of ways, including reaching out to individuals to assess their needs and connect them with available resources.
“We understand the Internet is the new way to search for something,” she said, so one important step is to put more and more information online so people can find it quickly on their own vs. having to call and tie up staff.
Brower said she’s optimistic that Minnesotans will find new and better ways to deal with the rising challenge.
“I’m hopeful we’ll be more innovative once we realize we can’t afford to continue down the path we’re on,” she said. “It gives us license to do things differently. So let’s not get too somber: I’m still hopeful about the future we have ahead.”