Editor’s note: This editorial is th­­e seventh in a series on issues facing Minnesota’s aging population.

Would it be a surprise to know that medical diagnosis and treatment are not the only major predictors of long life among Minnesota’s elderly population?

According to recent studies, quality of life is equally important. This is particularly true for the 25,000 state residents living in long-term care facilities, commonly known as nursing homes.

The growing number of elderly in Minnesota and increasing life expectancy finds health professionals paying greater attention to the connection between quality of life and mortality. The premise is that lower quality of life leads to greater health problems and greater health problems can lead to premature death.

Recent studies measuring quality of life of nursing home residents show both good news and bad news. The good news is that for most of the 25,000 living in Minnesota’s 357 nursing homes, life is good. The bad news is that for people of color and American Indians, maintaining an acceptable quality of life is a daily struggle.

According to Dr. Tetyana Shippee, associate professor in the division of health and policy management at the University of Minnesota, studies from 2013 to 2018 show residents of color and American Indians in Minnesota nursing homes reporting lower quality of life levels than their white counterparts. The studies also show the disparity widening.

“There are growing significant differences each year, with Native Americans reporting the most dissatisfaction,” Shippee said in a recent interview.

Quality of life of residents in all Medicaid-certified nursing homes in Minnesota has been systematically measured since 2005. A random sample of residents are asked to rate their level of comfort, environment, privacy, dignity, activity, food, autonomy, individuality, security, relationship, satisfaction and mood.

“Over the years, the survey has shown that a higher proportion of non-white residents at a facility is a significant predictor of lower quality of life for food enjoyment, social engagement, and overall summary score. Also, a higher proportion of black residents at a facility was associated with significantly lower scores on environment, positive mood, and overall summary score,” according to Shippee’s study.

Solutions to these disparities require consideration by state leaders, especially since added funding to increase long-term care staffing levels is essential to any significant positive impact. This is no easy lift.

While greater funding is needed, it is not the only solution being suggested by professionals who serve the aging. Alternative solutions, however, may be equally as difficult to implement. In some cases, it will mean a modification from “business as usual,” and others will require a change of attitude and heart.

Greater cultural sensitivity among nursing administration and staff will go a long way to improving quality of life for non-white nursing home residents, according to Shippee. “Minority residents report that they feel like their concerns are not heard while the concerns of white residents are.”

Hearing and responding to the needs of non-white residents would mean that food, activities and daily schedules would be planned with cultural preferences in mind. “There would be alternatives to what non-white residents see as ‘plain white folks food’ and white activities offered by white personnel,” Shippee said. “This goes right down to the fact that the facility policy is being set by white administrators who may have limited understanding of the cultural diversity of the resident population.”

Continued work on eliminating the quality of life disparity between whites and non-whites living in Minnesota nursing homes should be a priority for state leaders. This becomes especially important since demographic predictions are that non-white nursing home residents will surpass white residents by 2030.

An opinion of the Adams Publishing – ECM Editorial Board. The Forest Lake Times is a member of APG-ECM Publishers.

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