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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Aging outstate

State needs to provide more resources to help rural families care for elderly parents at home.


Should the elderly in rural parts of Minnesota be allowed to age in place? That’s a critical question given the lack of many in-home services for frail seniors in rural parts of the state.
It’s a problem that isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, it’s a problem that is destined to grow far worse over the next two decades.
In just ten years, one-in-three rural residents in Minnesota will be 65 years of age or older, according to the state demographer. We know that caring for the elderly in their own homes provides the best outcomes, the highest quality of life, and is far less expensive than housing them in residential care facilities. Living in a nursing home currently runs an average of $90,000 a year, and that’s an expense picked up by the taxpayers in most circumstances.
None of this new or revelatory. The in-home care sector has grown substantially in recent years as policies have encouraged maintaining the elderly in their homes as long as possible. The state of Minnesota has a well-established (if understaffed) system serving more populated parts of the state.
Such services, however, are not evenly distributed. Seniors in the metro area have any number of choices for in-home services, but that’s not the case in many rural parts of the state, including many parts of northern St. Louis County, where in-home care agencies have little or no consistent presence.
There are multiple reasons for that. Because the state has opted for a mostly private sector service model, parts of the state that are less efficient to serve, or where available workforce is limited, simply don’t offer services for families struggling to help their elderly parents stay at home. That can leave few alternatives to costly institutional care.
In-home care service jobs are critically important, yet they don’t pay what they should. In an economy with record-low unemployment, wages in the sector need to rise to attract people who see caring for the elderly as a meaningful career choice, not a temporary gig until something better comes along.
Gov. Tim Walz has touted his One Minnesota platform, but if Minnesotans are truly going to enjoy the equal opportunity regardless of where in the state they live, that has to include the opportunity to age in place with dignity, even in rural parts of the state.
That’s likely to take resources, but with a state budget surplus that could top $10 billion this session, it would seem that resources might be available to try to address the shortage of in-home elderly care services in rural Minnesota. We don’t have a particular answer for how to do that, only an identified need.
Failure to address the issue won’t make it go away. With the number of frail elderly projected to rise dramatically as the baby boom makes its way into those ranks, the need for in-home care will only increase at a time when rural workforces will be shrinking.
Without a solution, the burden will continue to fall heavily on rural families to care for their aging parents. While some can manage that burden, many can’t, at least not without paying a steep price financially. Families that are caring for elderly parents miss more work and incur additional expenses that may leave them struggling. When families are willing to step up and care for their parents, it reduces the need for taxpayers to pay for that care, whether it’s in-home services, assisted living, or a nursing home. A tax credit would be one way to offer families some financial support.
Caring for the elderly isn’t just expensive for families. The emotional and mental health toll can be even more profound, which is why it’s important to have other support services that provide a respite. Many of these services are already available in urban parts of Minnesota. It’s time that elderly and their families in rural parts of the state have those same opportunities.