Coming wave of aging will test Todd Countyby Jennifer Vogel, Minnesota Public Radio
Eagle Bend, Minn. — Near a window with lace curtains, a police scanner sputters to life.
"That's entertainment for me," says Loretta Peterson, 83, from a chair at her dining table. "It gets quiet around here sometimes."
Her house, seven miles northeast of Hewitt, is awash in knick-knacks and photos of her four children and nine grandchildren.
Since her husband, Floyd, died in 1993, Peterson has lived alone on this farm, which used to produce corn and oats and cows milk. "And lots of rocks," she adds. "But I've never been lucky enough to sell those."
Peterson lives on Social Security, her husband's veteran's benefits, and help from her kids, who live nearby. Money can get tight. "Last winter I sold scrap to pay for fuel oil," she says. Her primary meal each day comes via twice-monthly deliveries of frozen dinners from Meals on Wheels, run out of the senior center in Eagle Bend.
It's a complex web of family, volunteers, government services and private donations that keeps seniors like Peterson in their homes, a web that will be tested in coming years as Todd County's elderly population grows.
The county is grayer than the Minnesota average -- seniors make up nearly 17 percent of the population, compared with 12.5 percent for the state as a whole. The coming "silver tsunami" of retiring baby boomers, means that by 2030 one out of four residents is expected be over 65, putting Todd County at the fore of a national trend.
How well residents deal with that in coming years depends on many factors, including the economy, technology, retention of young people, immigration trends and changing lifestyles of the elderly. But fundamental will be the kind of web that supports people like Peterson.
Dale Judes, an agile 63-year-old who favors cowboy boots, drives for the Meals on Wheels bundled meal program and delivers to Peterson. The program, which serves around 30 elderly and needy in the far reaches of Todd County, is one of only a handful of similar efforts in the state.
Each week, Judes loads his Jeep with coolers full of food -- customers typically receive 14 frozen dinners, a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and desserts -- and drives, all the while punching numbers into his GPS.
"The biggest purpose is to keep people out of the nursing home," he says. "People do better in their own environments." Nursing homes, he adds, can feel like, "holding pens for the mortician."
Judes' philosophy squares with the state's push to keep elderly people independent for as long as possible. This reflects the changing desires of retirees and also the recasting of the nursing home as a temporary rehab center rather than the end of the road.
The approach saves money: Nursing homes cost almost $60,000 per resident per year in Minnesota, while other options, such as assisted living or the use of home health aides, are less expensive.
Saving money, especially public dollars, on elder care will become more crucial as boomers -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- begin drawing on Social Security and other programs.
"The concern over aging is not overblown," says state demographer Tom Gillaspy. "By 2020, Minnesota and the U.S. will have more people over age 65 than children in K-12 education for the first time. The whole concern over health care costs is fueled by the aging of the population."
Complicating matters is the fact that Todd County is poorer than most of Minnesota. In 2008, it ranked 75th out of 87 counties when measuring the portion of people living below the poverty line. While the state's average weekly wage is $881, Todd's is only $554.
Todd County has been losing jobs and young people for decades, a process Verna Toenyan, who coordinates the county's aging services, likens it to "a bathtub with the water draining out."
Much of the onus for plugging the drain falls to the county's social services and public health departments. Dale Stevens, a 66-year-old retired auctioneer who lives in a remote trailer northwest of Cushing, explains that Social Security doesn't go very far and he's broke at the end of each month. "I haven't eaten out in three years," he says.
Though Stevens has a roommate, he largely takes care of himself. His lifelines are Meals on Wheels and "the county person [who] comes every two months to make sure I'm eating and haven't fell over dead."
Demand for social services has increased in the battered economy, says Todd County Administrator Nathan Burkett. "Our financial worker's caseload is up 30 percent since February of '08. The county workers who administer state programs used to have 160 cases on average. Now they have 200 plus. That's a 25 percent increase."
At the same time, the county budget has been pinched as the state has trimmed funding. According to Burkett, over the past year and a half, County Program Aid from the state, for example, has been slashed from $1.5 million to around $600,000. That's led to a lot of belt tightening, including a reduction in full-time staff.
The coming wave of retirees will pose fresh challenges. "I do see some shifting of resources toward providing services for seniors," Burkett says. But, he adds, the county is looking to change its overall approach, "doing more with less" by partnering with private entities and non-profits.
"It's all about finding the right partners," Burkett says. "The county is a safety net and we're also a steering agent. We should not be taking responsibility for providing every single service. We should be connecting services, so that one plus one equals four." Acting as facilitator, he says, the county could help an already significant private healthcare industry thrive.
In the coming decades, the elderly may depend heavily on these partnerships and also on so-called "informal support networks" of friends and neighbors and volunteers.
In a sense, Eagle Bend's Meals on Wheels program is a hybrid of the two ideas and perhaps a model for the future. A joint effort between the state, the county and Lutheran Social Services, it relies on approximately two-dozen volunteers who cook, serve, and deliver meals.
"This program saves thousands of dollars," says Toenyan. "It's the one that needs to go statewide." Yet, she says, resources are stretched thin. "We've reached maximum capacity. Now we're at this point where we are going to have more seniors, so what are we going to do in the future?"
Loretta Peterson says moving to an assisted living facility or a nursing home "would kill me." Describing herself as "ornery," she says she's content living alone. "I'd never want another man. I like men, but I wouldn't want to live with one."
"I would like to stay here," Peterson declares of the farm she's called home for fifty years. "As long as Dale keeps bringing food."
First of four parts: This series has been prepared by Minnesota Public Radio News as part of a project called Ground Level, which explores Minnesota communities facing their futures.