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Local Commentary: Addressing the needs of Baby Boomers reaching 65th birthdays

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By Mary Beth Kehrwald

This year marks the 65th birthday of the first wave of Baby Boomers. As Boomers reach what has traditionally been "retirement" age, we need to consider how our communities will handle our shifting demographic and needs of older adults. In Stevens County, this means that about 18 percent of the population will be 65 or older by 2030. Jess Luce, a 2009 Bush Foundation Leadership Fellow, gave a presentation entitled Aging Communities, Boomers, and Creating Communities for a Lifetime at the February Stevens Forward meeting. Luce has a Masters in Public Administration with a focus on Gerontology and Health Services Management and Policy and is a board member of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging. His presentation - connected to the InCommons initiative (www.incommons.org) - focused on how communities can thrive while addressing the needs of their citizens.

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With the economic downturn and changing ideas about aging in America, it is more important than ever for community planners, developers, businesses, organizations, and government to connect with citizens to identify how they envision their later years to be and how collectively they hope to address shifting mobility, housing concerns, and services so that cities can plan accordingly. Ideas about retirement have changed with over half of respondents age 45-70 in a national survey reporting that they have considered ideas of working in "retirement" including part-time work. In finding meaningful activities in their later years, many Boomers are also becoming more involved in their communities through volunteerism, which is a huge benefit to communities that can provide those opportunities. Older adults and others can share their knowledge and experience in ways that can better their communities. We have seen these trends put into practice in Stevens County (and with Stevens Forward), and if people continue to commit their time and energy to community activities, we can see our community confront and meet our shared challenges, and in the process strengthen the collaboration between our communities - making the whole of Stevens County stronger.

In addition to shifting ideas about work and retirement, opinions are changing about housing as well. Most Minnesota Boomers who were surveyed (93 percent) said that they plan to live in a home that they own rather than rent as they grow older. Considering the likely health changes as individuals age, some modifications may need to be made to homes to make them more accessible so that people stay in their homes. This may include some universal design features such as installing reinforced railings, widening doorways, installing ramps, and exploring the option of creating a single-level home or moving into one. Luce also spoke about Communities for a Lifetime, which may be something for Stevens County to pursue further. Communities for a Lifetime (CFL) are communities for people of all ages - good places to grow up and grow old. CFL can be thought of as a community-planning framework - a philosophy of inclusiveness that suggests that if you effectively plan and build for an older population, you will create a community to serve all ages.

Stevens Forward is hoping to help the county prepare for the shifting community needs through working with community members to identify what our county assets are and what our residents need and want as they consider the future in terms of employment, housing, transportation, leisure time, and more. If you are interested in sharing your ideas about how Stevens County is prepared for the future or ideas about your own future plans, please contact Stevens Forward at (320) 589-6700 or StevensForward@fedtel.net.

Mary Beth Kehrwald is a representative of Stevens Forward.

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