Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties operates the largest Energy Assistance Program in the state. Each year, this program helps more than 20,000 households to maintain safe and continuous heating during the brutal and unforgiving Minnesota winters.
A significant percentage of the citizens served by this program are seniors, most of whom are living on a fixed income. Far too often, Minnesota seniors are forced to make the difficult choice between food, medicine and utilities. While the poverty rate has risen sharply during the last six years, Minnesota has made great strides in reducing poverty among its senior population.
In fact, Minnesotans aged 65 and over represent the only age group for which the poverty rate has decreased since 2008. Yet in spite of this progress, many experts are now warning that Minnesota seniors represent the state’s most vulnerable population.
Since 2009, the Minnesota Elder Economic Security Initiative has closely analyzed the cost of living for elderly singles and elderly couples by utilizing key indicators such as the price of food, housing and utility costs, healthcare and prescription expenses, access to transportation, and other basic household needs.
For years and years, many have argued that the federal poverty rate is an inadequate and even erroneous reflection of what poverty truly means in America. The research from the Minnesota Elder Economic Security Initiative confirms this argument.
So, while the official poverty rate among Minnesota seniors may appear low, the fact is that a significant percentage of this population subsists barely above the federal poverty line with Social Security as their only source of income. While this reality is daunting enough in and of itself, the truth of the matter is that the economic security of our seniors only stands to get worse unless we come together to address these issues now.
Perhaps the most significant factor as it relates to our seniors and their collective health and well-being is the number of Minnesotans who will join the ranks of those 65 and older in the next 15 years. The Minnesota State Demographic Center projects that between 2015 and 2030, the number of Minnesotans age 65 and older will increase by nearly 500,000 individuals. By that time, Minnesota’s senior population will be nearly 1.3 million people strong, eclipsing the state’s total school-age population.
This trend will present a myriad of social, economic, and healthcare challenges in our communities. We have already witnessed an increasing number of individuals approaching age 65 who are forced to delay retirement in order to meet their financial obligations. In addition, thousands more approaching retirement age have been laid off and are finding it nearly impossible to secure gainful employment in a dubious economy.
What are the implications of these already dire circumstances, particularly when considering that this age group will increase by more than 60 percent in the next decade and a half? In addition to such economic uncertainties, there are critical quality of life and health-related issues as well.
Minnesota Compass reports that nearly one-third of Minnesotans age 65 and older suffer from at least one disability. For seniors of color the rate of disability is far greater, as nearly one-half of Native American and African American seniors and two-fifths of Asian and Hispanic seniors deal with one or more disabilities. As this population group continues to grow in the coming years, the implications for healthcare policy, practice and strategy are colossal.
The task at hand seems rather intimidating. However, we must work to ensure that our seniors are well taken care of. These people are our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles. So many of them sacrificed for our benefit, and we in turn must do right by them. What would it say about a society that didn’t enable its elders to live in dignity?
It is time for community-based organizations, government agencies, community and elected leaders, and concerned citizens to build a future that honors and cares for our growing senior population. They must be provided with adequate health care, safe and affordable housing, social and recreational opportunities, income supports, and other basic necessities that ensure independence, quality of life, and dignity.
Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.