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This editorial is the fifth in a series on issues facing Minnesota’s aging population.

Minnesota’s long-term care, assisted living and other senior housing facilities are unique and deserve the attention of the public, providers and policy makers.

Newer metro complexes resemble luxury resorts, featuring restaurants, bars, climbing walls and movie theaters. Small towns may have traditional nursing homes that have been in the community for decades, serving generations of local families.

The senior complexes cropping up throughout the state are wildly diverse in size, appearance, amenities and cost.

However, they have one thing in common: The “help wanted” sign at the front door and the every-edition jobs ad in the local newspaper.

As baby boomers move from their homes, they are beginning to overwhelm the state’s health care systems. Many of Minnesota’s 1.3 million boomers will transition to assisted living over the next decade, and providers will struggle to meet their needs.

A major problem facing senior care is a distinct shortage of workers to fill the many positions needed to run a service-heavy business.

One Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development study projects the growth rate in jobs for home health aides will increase by 31 percent over the next 10 years and jobs for personal aides will increase by 34 percent.

Skilled workers, such a registered nurses, are also in high demand. DEED estimates the need for RNs will increase by 11 percent over 10 years. These high-paying jobs (median wage is $79,297) require an associate’s degree.

Ambulatory care services (doctors, outpatient centers, home care and diagnostic laboratories) expect to add 38,000 new jobs over the next 10 years, a 26 percent projected growth rate.

The severe shortage of workers in a field of rapidly growing need affects each of us, whether we are the individual needing care or the child or grandchild of the aging person.

Lack of workers can lead to hiring unqualified people and staffing shortages. Existing staff works extra shifts to cover necessary services or services are cut back or neglected.

These shortages exacerbate the stress workers face when dealing with an important but sometimes unpredictable customer. Residents with dementia can be highly emotional and unpredictable. Some individuals retain physical strength while losing mental control.

Finding solutions is challenging on many fronts. The financial model of the nursing care industry features modest pay for attendants. Low pay forces workers to take second jobs or move to another industry. The shortage becomes a revolving door — turnover is high and worker pools are small.

Multiple initiatives are necessary to address this problem.

State legislators should prioritize aging issues, including funding formulas for nursing facilities.

State colleges and technical schools need to be attuned to this acute need and encourage students into programs that will lead to gainful employment as nursing assistants and registered nurses.

Business-education partnerships are essential to build career opportunities for those interested in health care jobs. Some of these can start with high school students and segue into internships or community college programs aimed for quick employment.

Nonprofit organizations are already involved in job-training and workforce programs and can help by encouraging people to consider the health care field.

The public needs to understand the depth of this dilemma and encourage young people to consider careers in health care. These jobs can be deeply rewarding for those who thrive on human contact and compassion.

Finally the issue cannot be addressed without mentioning immigration. Over the past two decades, programs have focused on helping immigrants develop the skills to fill health care positions. With an emphasis from the federal level to decrease and discourage immigration, the potential employee pool is diminished.

Developing an effective pipeline of job opportunities to fill the industry’s demands is absolutely essential. Addressing these issues now will benefit everyone as we work to ensure all older Minnesotans can live fulfilling lives in the coming decades.

— An opinion of the Adams Publishing – ECM Editorial Board. Reactions welcome. Send to: editorial.board@ecm-inc.com.

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