An Opportunity to Change the Way We Think About Aging

Ecumen CEO Kathryn Roberts had an op-ed published in today’s Saint Paul Pioneer Press on preparing for the age wave. The text follows:Herb Carneal was a wonderful person and announcer, and also a role model for vital, successful aging. His family and friends were always near. He embraced his work. And he lived and died where he wanted – at home.At Ecumen we’re vested in helping more people live as Herb did. To help get there, we recently commissioned the largest survey of Minnesota baby boomers – the biggest tide of the coming age wave – to see how they foresee living as seniors. Their opinions reveal astounding opportunities for leadership in reinventing aging and paying for the freedom we desire.Money-saving flexibility: Vermont’s nationally acclaimed ‘Choices for Care’ initiative lets Medicaid – assistance for the poor – pay for home care, which averages $20,000 annually in Vermont versus $40,000 for a nursing home. Nearly nine of 10 boomers (89 percent) embrace the initiative. (Interestingly, about three years ago Minnesota began a similar program. Few know it exists. The unwieldy ‘Consumer Directed Community Supports’ program is buried deeply in the Department of Human Services Web site, where it says about 120 people use it. Inquiring about it, a colleague received an 88-page booklet. Let’s seize the opportunity to simplify this and remove it from the closet. If it’s hidden because of costs, let’s say so and build something better.)Wired for freedom: Boomers love on-demand tech tools. In fact, 92 percent expect technology to enhance their independence as seniors. Take, for example, digital sensor technology. It unobtrusively learns a person’s daily routines and sends 24/7 motion updates to a caregiver’s or family member’s computer or cell phone. It helps spot small health issues before they expand in complexity and expense. It connects people across distances and gives caregivers and physicians data earlier. Two years ago, six early adopters piloted this for us in Maplewood. Now 600 of our customers use it.Ireland, seeing aging as an economic opportunity, recently joined Intel on a development center to create proactive digital technologies that help European seniors live how they want to live, where they want to. Minnesota could step ahead if we used our ingenuity to develop such technologies here.Better payment options: Don’t like the phrase ‘long-term care’? Most boomers don’t, either. So why do companies try selling difficult-to-understand long-term care insurance? Few buy it or trust it. Boomers want more flexible hybrid products, such as life insurance that could be tapped for care if needed. And nearly 100 percent of boomers we surveyed want a simple point-and-click Web site to comparison shop for state-endorsed savings and payment options. Boomers see these as keys to living life how they want to, rather than one-way tickets to a nursing home. Products emphasizing that aging is about living – even toward the end of life – will create a better market-government balance and allow more independence. But thinking differently will also improve the safety net for those in need.Downtown development: Most boomers point to rural or suburban communities as their ideal retirement location. Only 10 percent say the urban core is where they want to be. But, with foresight, the age wave could benefit St. Paul as much as the river current has. Boomers want nearby health care, transportation, worship places, shopping, education, fitness and multi-generational living. St. Paul has many of these dots, and light rail could connect more.In Chicago, the Franciscan Sisters and Loyola University built The Clare at Water Tower to bring people downtown. This isn’t sterile, cookie-cutter housing. Architecturally stunning, it houses college classrooms, a performance center, day spa, rooftop terrace and restaurants. Called a life-care community, it also has memory and hospice care. A person, in return for an entry fee, never has to leave, even if his or her assets are depleted. It’s a new, successful entrepreneurial product based on the idea that aging is an active verb.Minnesota’s 1.5 million baby boomers are sounding a declaration of independence. It’s a human desire. And we can meet it if we lead in changing aging.Kathryn Roberts is CEO of Shoreview-based Ecumen, which is Minnesota’s largest nonprofit senior housing and services company. Read the full Ecumen Age Wave Study.