In the next year, Minnesota will undergo a historic demographic shift: The population aged 65 and older is expected to outnumber the school-age population (5-17) for the first time. This shift is of special importance in St. Louis County, which already has a higher proportion of older residents than the Twin Cities.
Given this impending demographic change, policymakers ought to focus on the mental health of this aging cohort.
It is well established that mental health is a major concern for the elderly. Over 20 percent of all adults aged 60 and older suffer from a mental or neurological disorder. Given the high prevalence of mental health concerns among the elderly and the growing proportion of individuals who soon will fall into this demographic category, it is imperative that policymakers take steps now to address the issue.
Major contributing factors to mental health problems in the elderly population include isolation and loneliness.
Loneliness has been connected to a range of health issues, including higher risks of depression and anxiety. One in three seniors in the U.S. is lonely, and the rates are even higher among women and lower-income individuals.
While a simple solution might appear to be moving the elderly in with their children or getting them to live together in traditional nursing homes, the problem is not so easily resolved.
For one, the trend in Duluth has long been away from family households and toward one-person households. This has made it increasingly difficult for the elderly in Duluth to share a living space with their children.
New nursing homes are not a silver bullet to this issue, either. Duluth is one of the most expensive areas in Minnesota for assisted living at $600 per month more than the state average.
Most importantly, interventions like these only increase the number of relationships in an elderly individual's life rather than addressing the quality of the relationships. To combat loneliness and associated mental health issues, the focus ought to be on meaningful social contact in the growing elderly population.
As the elderly retire from work and step away from other involvements due to physical or mental limitations, meaningful social contact becomes more and more difficult to maintain.
One innovative approach to fostering quality relationships and improving mental health outcomes in the elderly population is intergenerational communities. These are living arrangements where families with school-age children, young adults, and the elderly engage in social living activities together to promote intergenerational interaction and cooperation. They offer a sense of belonging and security for all residents and provide elderly individuals with a chance to utilize their strengths, talents, and experiences for the benefit of kids and their families. For example, one model in Oregon brings together the elderly and families whose children have developmental disabilities.
Communities like these show great promise to improve mental health outcomes for elderly individuals. They give a sense of purpose back to this vulnerable segment of the population.
Intergenerational communities may also provide new opportunities for economic development, as they feature unique housing arrangements. The Oregon model utilizes one-bedroom cottages interspersed with family homes in a circle; a community center anchors the space.
Intergenerational communities are an important form of social intervention that offer the chance to give elderly individuals the quality of life they deserve.
As 2020 and the associated demographic inflection point draws nearer, Minnesota policymakers need to find ways to adjust to the unique mental health needs of the elderly population. Intergenerational communities provide an innovative way to do that.
Emma Flynn of Duluth is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota studying health services management, public health, and philosophy. She first became concerned about elder care because of her mother, a nurse at the Chris Jensen Health and Rehabilitation Center in Duluth.