The United States is on the cusp of a major expansion of its senior population, a demographic trend that will sweep through Minnesota like a strong prairie wind.

According to St. Paul’s Wilder Research, Minnesota’s older adult population (65 and older) will more than double between 2010 and 2030 as Minnesota’s 1.3 million baby boomers head into retirement.

In the coming years, seniors also will constitute a larger percentage of Minnesota’s overall population — in 2013, seniors accounted for 20 percent or more of the population in just 31 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. By 2030, they will reach that milestone in all 87.

To put this development in historical perspective, the growth in the senior population in Minnesota was well under 100,000 during each decade from the 1950s through the 2000s. Yet, as Wilder Research points out, the number of Minnesotans who are 65 and older will grow by 285,000 during this decade and by 335,000 during the 2020s.

While a graying America represents a major public-policy challenge, it offers opportunities as well. A strategic approach that seeks to capture these opportunities begins with bridging the gap between housing and health. The simple truth is that the home is an essential platform upon which to deliver health care and other vital support services.

Consider that some 70 percent of Americans who reach 65 eventually will require help with basic activities like bathing, getting dressed, food preparation and medication management. For most of us, what are known as long-term services and supports will be provided to us at home and paid for out of private savings.

Unfortunately, today, there is too little collaboration across the health and housing fields. In fact, experts tell us that health and housing practitioners speak “different languages” and that they too often operate within separate “policy silos,” producing major barriers to effectively delivering the services they provide.

More tightly linking health and housing has the potential to produce better health outcomes for seniors. Minnesota has been a leader in capturing this potential by broadening the availability of home- and community-based services for the low-income elderly through Medical Assistance, the state’s Medicaid program.

A greater integration of housing and health also holds promise to reduce the costs incurred by the health care system, an objective of great importance with federal government spending on health care programs projected to grow faster than the overall economy over the next 25 years.

Greater collaboration between health and housing providers can help millions of seniors age in place in their own homes and communities and delay the decision to enter a nursing home or other institution. As they age, most seniors understandably want to remain close to family and friends. More effectively integrating health and housing can help make that possible.

Of course, we all stand to benefit from a healthier and more engaged senior population. It is a source of great pride that Minnesota’s seniors are among the most active volunteers in the country, with the second-highest rate of volunteerism among older adults of any state. Our state’s seniors represent a valuable asset that must be strengthened and protected.

There are some wonderful examples in Minnesota where health, housing, and other support services are working in tandem. Innovative housing providers like Ecumen, Episcopal Homes and Presbyterian Homes & Services have made providing a range of services — from housekeeping, shopping and grooming assistance to comprehensive primary care — central to their missions. These actions have helped empower seniors, enabling them to live in their homes and communities more safely and successfully.

The federal government must do its part as well. As former members of Congress who were deeply involved in the federal budget process, we know there is far too little focus on developing more integrated approaches to delivering federal services to the elderly. The rigid committee structure within Congress does not lend itself well to effective coordination and the development of new ideas. Within the executive branch, cross-agency collaboration on health, housing and other issues affecting the elderly is more the exception than the rule.

Long-term care reform must also be a top priority. Today, the financing and delivery of long-term services and supports are highly fragmented and lack coordination across providers. We need to develop a sustainable means of financing and delivering long-term services and supports, a goal made more urgent by the fact that Medicare largely does not cover these services today.

The bottom line: As the senior ranks begin to swell, closing the health and housing divide will be more important than ever in Minnesota and across the country.

 

Vin Weber, a Republican, and Martin Sabo, a Democrat, are both former members of the U.S. House from Minnesota.