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COVID-19 highlights the critical need for Minnesota to support seniors and their caregivers

Unless lawmakers prioritize senior care in dramatically new ways in this legislative session and this budget, many challenges facing seniors and their caregivers will remain, even after the pandemic.

A nursing home resident receiving the coronavirus vaccine in Brooklyn, New York.
A nursing home resident receiving the coronavirus vaccine in Brooklyn, New York.
REUTERS/Yuki Iwamura

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, long-term caregivers across Minnesota have worked day and night to provide care and support for our most vulnerable seniors. These remarkable people have risked their own health to serve residents in nursing homes and assisted living settings with unflagging dedication, clinical skills and innovation month after month in the face of this deadly threat to seniors’ health and well-being.

The infection control protocols that forced senior care communities to close their doors to visitors helped save residents’ lives, but it also broke hearts, separating elders from those they held most dear. Our professional caregivers stepped in to help bridge that gap with empathy and innovation, fighting against the physical harm caused by COVID-19 and the emotional and mental harm left in its wake as well.

With widespread vaccinations of residents, we believe we have reached a cautious turning point in our fight against COVID-19. New state and federal restrictions have eased visitation and quarantine restrictions in our care settings. Cases and outbreaks have dropped significantly and, thanks to the work of so many, better days are here.

Yet, we cannot forget what we have learned from this crisis: from workforce shortages so severe that the National Guard had to be called to serve as direct caregivers, to the infection control risks posed by aging and outdated buildings, to the loss of critical in-home supports like adult day services. Seniors were uniquely vulnerable to the threats of COVID-19 in part because we as a state have not prioritized seniors or their caregivers within our overall health care ecosystem. Unless lawmakers prioritize senior care in dramatically new ways in this legislative session and this budget, many challenges facing seniors and their caregivers will remain, even after the pandemic is no longer a threat.

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The pandemic laid bare the alarming shortage of caregiving professionals – approximately 10,000 job vacancies statewide. Nursing homes and assisted living settings in every part of the state face a persistent inability to find and retain people to care for seniors.

Patti Cullen
Patti Cullen
Now lawmakers have a unique opportunity to leverage new federal funds available through the American Rescue Plan to help jump-start our work to ensure access to safe, quality senior care throughout the state. Lawmakers can increase our investment in programs like Elderly Waiver, which supports low-income seniors in their quest to remain in their own homes as long as possible. Lawmakers started the important work to reform this program to better reflect the actual cost of care in 2017, but investments have stalled.

We also call on lawmakers to support hero bonuses for senior caregivers. To recognize the extraordinary efforts of caregivers who courageously and compassionately cared for seniors during this pandemic, lawmakers should pass an immediate, one-time hero pay bonus to these everyday heroes. Lawmakers can also improve access to Adult Day Services, an essential service for seniors living in their own homes to help prevent social isolation and improve health outcomes to avoid more costly care, by establishing a grant program with American Rescue Plan dollars to re-establish these services after months of closure.

Gayle M. Kvenvold
Gayle M. Kvenvold
The pandemic changed many things, but it did not change a fundamental fact – Minnesota is on the cusp of a senior population boom unlike any before. We already have more seniors in our state than we have school-age children, and by 2030, we will need an additional 25,000 caregivers to serve their needs.

Let’s take the hard-won wisdom of this challenging year, the spirit of collaboration that has been evident in our work to fight back against the worst outcomes of COVID-19, the courageous thinking that has brought us this far and put it to use in forging a transformation of how and where we deliver services and support for seniors. Let’s start with how we use the American Rescue Plan investments right here in our own backyard.

Patti Cullen is president and chief executive officer of Care Providers of Minnesota; she has held this post since 2007. Gayle M. Kvenvold is president and chief executive officer of LeadingAge Minnesota and has held this post since 1989.

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