By Kathryn LeBrasseur, Alexandria, MN
Recently, I have been playing the role of historian to several groups of older persons as new boards take over. Primarily due to my age, I suspect. In doing this, I realize how much of the history I was involved in and how interestingly much of it is being recreated in new formats. The history of seniors as a special segment of our population with needs, technically starts with the Older Americans Act of 1965. This spotlighted the needs of older Americans for housing, health promotion, legal services and education, senior nutrition and transportation. So federal funds were allocated, and programs were established to have a local impact. State offices and Area Agencies on Aging were established. Douglas was part of a seven-county group called Region 4.
Douglas County’s population, even then, had over 25% over the age of 60. Thus, the city and county got involved. The Viking Towers was built. An activity center for seniors was established at the Viking Towers under the support of the city. Nutrition sites were established in all cities throughout the county and thus the county established the office of a coordinator to work with each community to enhance services. Both the city of Alexandria and the county provided for transportation needs by subsidized cab tickets and volunteer driver programs. Persons with special needs were identified and services coordinated to meet those needs. The seniors of the county identified further needs such as home delivered meals and handicapped accessibility of public buildings and organized the County Committee on Aging to find solutions to those needs. They not only identified the problems they planned the programs to service them and raised the funds to pay for them. Remember the old Popcorn Wagon? Grants were readily available. The results were visible.
For many years this seemed sufficient. However, reality has once again surfaced that the elderly are a group in need! Our numbers are growing due to the increase in longevity. Today’s life expectancy is 76.2 years for men and 81.2 for women. Because we are living longer, there are obviously more of us. In my estimation, the needs have never been greater. Inflation has made Social Security and/or retirement benefits inadequate because the salaries were low or unavailable. Federal and state benefits have had to decrease due to the increased numbers of individuals. Greater decreases are foreseen. Nursing homes have had to close in rural areas. If you have the funds to enter one, beds are scarce. Older homes require maintenance that costs money the resident doesn’t have. Medical care is unaffordable. Affordable transportation is unavailable. Perhaps the greatest problem is isolation of the individual without transportation or awareness of available services.
None of this is without hope though! We live in the area where all agencies and nonprofits work together. Alexandria was recognized as an Age Friendly City three years ago by AARP and the World Health Organization. It was one of 75 in the nation so identified and the only rural one. It has also been identified as the best city in the state. Governor Walz is starting a new council to study the needs of the elderly in Minnesota and in addition to state officers and services, six seats are being awarded to community leaders and Dian Lopez of Alexandria has been named to one of them! That’s one of six in the state. The population growth throughout our area is primarily that of older citizens wanting to “return to their roots” or elderly being attracted to the quality of life in our area.
Interestingly, the needs of all ages are a concern here. Our governmental agencies, nonprofits and corporations are all working and planning together to meet those needs. Dynamic leaders in this area are our Community Foundation, the ATCC and District 206 foundations, and the United Way community gathering of nonprofits. Our local industries support and award funds to local endeavors to enhance the quality of life for all. Our local media is supportive and helpful. We are in the third year of the required Age Friendly Community Plan to maintain and enhance life for all ages in our area. Things are being done! What a gift that we can be involved in this new segment of history. Together!
Kathryn LeBrasseur is a former executive director of the Alexandria Senior Center and has been involved in a variety of community organizations, many focusing on senior issues. “In the Know” is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.