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For aging population, need for community services is outgrowing the funding

Katherine Blauvelt, left, and Debra Wallace, both Central Minnesota field representatives for Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., answer questions about senior benefits and programs during a senior listening session Thursday at the Willmar Community Center. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Despite all the transportation, nutrition, respite and other services in the region to serve the aging population, Lynn Buckley still sees elderly individuals who fall through the cracks.

These are services that can "help the seniors remain independent in a very economical and cost-efficient way," said Buckley, coordinator of the Caring Connections program at Redwood Area Hospital in Redwood Falls. "It's very difficult to say, 'I'm really sorry but I can't help you.'"

As the baby boomers begin to swell the ranks of the retired, this scenario might take place increasingly often, especially if program funding can't keep up, a local audience told Sen. Al Franken's staff on Thursday in Willmar.

Staff from Franken's office are touring the state this month to gather information about issues, concerns and solutions for meeting the needs of the oldest citizens.

"This is a great start to hear from you. ... We're here to listen," Deborah Wallace of the senator's St. Cloud office told the nearly 40 people at Thursday's meeting at the Willmar Community Center.

The timing is apt. Next year Congress is scheduled to vote on reauthorizing the Older Americans Act, which provides federal funding for crucial senior programs such as Meals on Wheels and the Senior Linkage Line telephone help service.

Franken sits on the Senate's Special Committee on Aging and on the Subcommittee on Retirement and Aging of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The senator's staff heard repeatedly at Thursday's listening session about a growing need for programs to serve older adults and an increasing shortage of funding.

Use of the Meals on Wheels program in Willmar "is exploding," said Charlie Oakes, executive director of West Central Industries, which coordinates the meal service.

The numbers are doubling every eight to 10 years, he said. "Families are spread out and people are living longer. ... We haven't even hit the baby boomers yet."

Unlike most Meals on Wheels programs, the Willmar program was established before federal funding became available through Area Agencies on Aging for the Meals on Wheels service. It therefore doesn't qualify for federal support and relies instead on the local community and on city funds, Oakes said.

"The cities are being squeezed for local government aid so they have less discretionary money to spend," he said. "We've passed that cost along. It's been a good program for many, many years, but I think there needs to be some way to grandfather us in."

Transportation is another critical service, Buckley said. "If we lose those transportation services, it will be devastating, not only for rural Minnesota but for the whole state."

Don't overlook the particular challenges faced by rural communities, urged Maureen Melberg-Schneider, who chairs the Area Agency on Aging advisory committee for Region 6 East.

"We don't have the resources. We don't have the critical mass," she said.

Regionalization isn't necessarily the answer, she said. "There is a certain amount of the personal, local attention that tends to get lost."

Participants at the listening session also had success stories to share. One program in Yellow Medicine County enlists school-aged youths to help with chores for older people in their community. Other programs use volunteers -- many of them senior citizens themselves -- to provide rides so older adults can go to the doctor, go shopping or attend church.

Melberg-Schneider described a "diner's club" meal program in one community that involves a local restaurant. Once a week, the town nursing home pays for coffee for all the elderly diners. Not only does it give older adults a chance to socialize downtown, but it's also good for local business, she said.

"I think that is a model that may have some application for the future," she said.

Katherine Blauvelt of Franken's staff said the listening sessions have been scheduled in more than 20 Minnesota cities, starting this week. So far, many of the concerns being voiced are similar, she said.

"The input you're giving us is really valuable," she said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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