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County proactive with aging population

By 2025, senior citizens are projected to surpass school age children in population size in Dakota County. By 2030, the population of Dakota County residents 65 or older will triple in size to over 86,000.

To prepare for this, Dakota County has created an aging initiative, called "Living Longer and Stronger in Dakota County." The effort is designed to meet the needs of a rising senior population.

"It's a whole demographic shift in the county, unlike anything we've ever seen before." said Deborah Tompkins. Tompkins is a community initiative director in charge of bringing the initiative together.

Although the aging population had previously been taken into consideration, the initiative wasn't created until District 7 Commissioner Willis Branning attended a White House conference on aging in 2005. When he returned to the state, he asked county administrator Brandt Richardson to put together a task force and look at the county's maturing population.

"Aging is to be an implied process in everything we do at the county," Branning said. "After all, it isn't going to take too many years before the overall population of the county is over 65."

County analysts looked at various county, regional and national data according to Debra Miller, a management analyst in the county office of planning, evaluation and development (OPED). They also consulted data from the state demographer's office, which projected a significant increase in the senior population in Dakota County.

"For the first time in history in our county, in the year 2025 older adults will outnumber kids in grades K through 12." Tompkins said.

The tripling of the senior citizen population in Dakota County could mean there won't be enough service providers and resources needed to help sustain healthy senior residents.

"What we do know is there would be unmet needs in terms of housing," Miller said.

Tompkins said the county's initiative was influenced by a variety of specifically the Minnesota Board on Aging's Transform 2010 blueprint plan. The county's initiative parallels many of the state's recommendations, according to Tompkins. A report was drafted in 2007 by the county OPED that identified six aspects of a burgeoning senior population that will have to be addressed. In the report, strategies were made for finance, health, housing, services, transportation and community involvement issues.

The county board of commissioners approved the plan late last fall, according to Tompkins. Since then the county has established a three year contract with DARTS, an organization that provides senior and family services and volunteer opportunities. DARTS hired Tompkins, who has a master's degree in human development, to spearhead the next phase of the initiative: creating theme groups to brainstorm recommendations.

A meeting was held June 12 at Dakota County Technical College to divide volunteers into six so-called theme teams based on the six issues in each report. These volunteers will meet on the third Tuesday of every month starting June 24 and split into project teams in order to come up with specific recommendations on their own as well as review recommendations made by county officials.

"This is a whole learning experience," Branning said. "We've never delved into how do we really accommodate, maximize the fact that we're getting older."

One of the more interesting recommendations made by the county is the creation of a county civic engagement center. The center, which could either be online or real-life, would offer services to those who are transitioning into retirement. It would also offer volunteer or work opportunities for older residents. Branning said he wants the center to offer services to everyone, not just seniors. In retirement hotspots like Arizona, there are no senior centers, only community centers that offer services and gathering places to everyone, according to Branning.

"People use their talents to mentor other people," he said.

Another group of recommendations calls for an increase in transportation services and options to seniors and the community at large by making such adjustments as adding a county transportation mobility coordinator position, which could work with the Minnesota Valley Transportation Association and other transportation providers to improve county public transportation services.

Financial recommendations will become increasingly important as time draws closer to 2030, when the initiative predicts the population of senior citizens will increase to over 86,000. Because many people don't adequately financially prepare for their retirement, they may face a decreased standard of living.

The county hopes to help create affordable housing and transportation options for senior residents by expanding affordable senior rental housing, supporting an expanded home loan improvement program, and recruiting more volunteer drivers to ease service waits. The county also recommends financial planning seminars for retired residents as well as business employees. Another key aspect to the county's financial program is determining how to involve older residents in work-related opportunities to help ease the cost of living.

"We're gonna need seniors in the workplace," Branning said. "We're gonna need people of all ages in the workforces."

After the theme teams have evaluated county recommendations, Miller said there should be a pool of projects the county can either pursue right away or save for later.

Tompkins said even though the targeted audience is the baby-boomer generation, the county initiative will benefit everyone.

Although the results of the theme teams won't appear for some time, the teams will still be busy with their evaluations. Anyone who is interested in volunteering on a theme team can contact Deborah Tompkins. There's going to be plenty of work to do.

"What we're trying to tell people is you need to be concerned, and you need to be involved now," Tompkins said. "It's coming right down the road."

The next initiative meeting is June 24 at 6:30 p.m. at Dakota County Technical College. Tompkins can be reached at 651-234-2236 or by e-mail at