More Minnesotans are aging alone. Here’s how we can address their biggest challenges

Caring for the elderly
Retirees make up a significant portion of Minnesota’s population, and yet many are finding themselves without support as they enter their later years.
John Moore via Getty Images

Retirees make up a significant portion of Minnesota’s population, and yet many are finding themselves without support as they enter their later years.

According to census data from 2022, there are more than 300,000 people over the age of 65 who live alone in Minnesota. Add in the fact that one in six Baby Boomers never had kids, and that leaves many without support as they age.

Maureen Schneider is vice chair of the Minnesota Board on Aging. She joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer to break down what resources are available to solo agers.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Retirees make up a significant portion of Minnesota's population, and yet many are finding themselves without support as they enter their later years. According to census data from 2022, there are more than 300,000 people over the age of 65 that live alone in Minnesota. Add in the fact that one in six baby boomers never had kids, and that leaves many without support as they age. Maureen Schneider is the vice chair of the Minnesota Board on Aging. She joins us to break down the problem and share what resources are available for these solo agers. Maureen, welcome to the program.

MAUREEN SCHNEIDER: Thank you, Cathy. Good morning to you.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you for taking the time. Wow. Over the past few years, I'm sure we've seen a big increase in solo agers as I mentioned because many of the boomers didn't have kids. What do you think's behind what's going on here?

MAUREEN SCHNEIDER: Well, as you started out with your demographics, definitely population aging is already occurring in Minnesota. And we are seeing that rapid transition to an older state. It's already occurring.

So when you look at the demographics, you have to break that down then in terms of these solo ager population. And what are some of the reasons? Well, of course, part of it is widowhood because women tend to outlive men. And in 2021, there were 11.6 million widows in the US. And their average age was 59.

The other thing is childlessness. The rate of childless has almost doubled with the baby boomers. Whether that's by choice or by happenstance, it's almost doubled. Then there are folks who are living alone. This is more common among older adults who are childless than counterpoints who are parents. And then there's poverty rates because those tend to be higher among childless older adults than older parents.

And then I address the widowhood, but that has to do with life expectancy. Women live 5.8 years longer than men. That's the biggest gap we've seen between men and women since the year 1996. So yes, we do have a solo aging population that is going to need resources and attention and services and supports.

CATHY WURZER: What are the biggest challenges to these solo agers?

MAUREEN SCHNEIDER: There are a number of them. Part of it is access. They don't necessarily know how to enter the system so that they can access the needed services that they need.

The second issue would be the whole transportation component. Almost any senior program that you talk about these days will need to have a very clear and concise transportation component. How will you be getting the elder to the appointment, to the meeting? It's a major, major, significant part of any discussion on aging.

The transportation piece is critical not only in Minnesota but throughout the United States. But I think we hear about it more in Minnesota because it is so prevalent. And so people don't necessarily know where to turn.

Another part of the problem is the whole thing of human nature. We tend not to look for resources or respond to a challenge until it has become an emergency. This is not something we start early. And we really need to get much, much better with that. We used to call it early intervention, getting ahead of the curve, staying where you can upstream (LAUGHING) so that you are able to see what you might need as an older adult and be prepared for it.

And then the other thing, Cathy, that I have to mention is this whole lack of awareness. Very often, people simply do not know where to turn because they haven't been made aware of it. And that is particularly sad to me because in Minnesota, we are resource rich. We've done a great job with building, developing, and sustaining programs for older adults. But the truth of the matter is that many people simply have not either gotten the message, or they haven't yet paid attention to the message.

CATHY WURZER: Let me ask you a little bit about-- there's a lot that you just outlined there, and I appreciate that. The transportation piece, of course, as you note is key, right? Especially when you try to find ways to get to the doctor for health care, for preventative care. And if you're in the Twin Cities, I suppose you could take Uber or Lyft. But how about our friends in greater Minnesota? How does that work?

MAUREEN SCHNEIDER: The friends of greater Minnesota, people who prefer to live in greater Minnesota and have no plans to leave have particularly a challenge in terms of transportation. The distance between points can be greater than in the metro. And there can be and is definitely a shortage of volunteer drivers.

The other thing that very often happens is that an elder may need to have a doctor's appointment, but they really do need to be escorted into the clinic or the medical facility. Now, there are resources for that. But it's not often that people feel like they want to reach out and put themselves in the position where maybe some personal information would need to be shared.

Maybe they aren't familiar with the volunteer driver, and they really don't want to build any kind of a relationship. They would like to depend on their adult children. However, the adult child, although willing and able, may not necessarily be close to the senior who needs a ride to the clinic or a ride to the doctor. Maybe they live in Baltimore. Or maybe they live in Duluth, but the elder lives somewhere in a small town in greater Minnesota, and it's 300 miles away. And so that question about the escorted appointments becomes a critical one.

Now, there are resources available. But again, we have to make sure that people know where to access them and that they start early, as I said earlier. And I know that I think most adult children given an opportunity want to help mom or dad with their medical appointments or any other needs. But the fact is that that adult child may be already working a full time job. They may be raising children. They may be helping with community projects and volunteering. And that's why we call them the sandwich generation sometimes because they really are stuck between their own lives and their own responsibilities and commitments and that desire to help an aging parent with basic things like medical appointments.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering here-- Maureen, I'm wondering here in terms of we don't have a lot of time left. Not to interrupt you, and I'm sorry about that. But I'm wondering when it comes to the awareness of some of the services, is there a one stop shop online where loved ones can maybe go online including the senior and find some of these services? And is it up to maybe the physician to also suggest some of these services?

MAUREEN SCHNEIDER: I'm glad you asked that. As I said, in Minnesota, we are resource rich, and we have resources of which we can be very proud. The first one I want to talk about is our Senior LinkAge Line. Anyone can call the Senior LinkAge Line. They will be connected to a direct, specially trained specialist. They will be able to obtain information on services and supports that are within their particular zip code. And they will be followed to the point where the person calling will have a definite, definite answer when they are finished with their call.

The second thing I want to mention is That is a website. It's comprehensive. It's an online resource that connects users to programs and services.

Both of those resources are readily available, as I said, well staffed. And I encourage people to take advantage of what we already have developed in Minnesota. In many cases, we are the envy of other states. And we're very proud of our work through the Minnesota Board on Aging.

CATHY WURZER: Excellent. I wish I had more time with you. You've got a lot of good information, Maureen. Thank you so very much.

MAUREEN SCHNEIDER: You are so welcome. My pleasure talking with you.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Maureen Schneider. She's the vice chair of the Minnesota Board on Aging.

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