In the Spotlight

News & Features
Older Residents Settling in the Arrowhead
By Stephanie Hemphill
Minnesota Public Radio
May 24, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of The Faces of Minnesota
Click for audio RealAudio

New census figures show Minnesota is getting older. And some parts are older than others. Aitkin County in the center of the state has the highest median age in the state, 46.5 years. Cook County in far northeastern Minnesota is second, with a median age of 44. Cook County is taking steps to cope with its aging population and prepare for increasing numbers of elderly people in the future.

A FACE OF MINNESOTA Gladys Beckwith, 80, is one of the first residents in the new senior citizens housing complex at the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. She moved there recently from Grand Marais.
Listen to her comments.
(MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
AT THE POST OFFICE IN TOFTE, Alta McQuatters greets her customers by name. A local resort worker brings in a bulk mailing - nearly all the other patrons are over 65. That's fairly typical in a part of the state that's enjoying a booming tourist economy, and a dramatic influx of retired people. There is a down side. Land is expensive here, and McQuatters says it's hard for young people to find jobs that pay enough to buy a home.

"A lot of the young kids, they graduate, they go off to college, they end up getting jobs there, they never come back until they retire. So we lose a lot," says McQuatters.

Families with children are particularly scarce in Cook County, where the proportion of the school-age population is the lowest in the state, just over 20 percent. With no nearby districts to merge with, the shrinking schools here have to keep cutting back programs.

Lots of people who vacation along the North Shore get hooked on the natural beauty and laid-back lifestyle, and many are converting seasonal homes into retirement homes. Some even manage to move here before they retire. Phyllis Olson vacationed in the northwoods every summer because both her parents grew up in Ely. Four years ago she landed a job as a therapist in Grand Marais. And now she's bringing her mother here from Washington D.C.

"She has fallen a couple of times this year and is starting to feel she can't stay there in that big metropolitan area anymore," says Olson. "So we are buying a duplex in Grand Marais, and I feel really fortunate because there are only a couple duplexes in Grand Marais. We will be side-by-side and yet each have our own space. And she's really excited about coming back near to where she grew up, because we're just about 100 miles from Ely."

Most of the retirees who move here are well-off financially. Cook County's auditor and treasurer, Brady Powers, says they bring new expectations for amenities and public services.

"When I used to come up here vacationing in the '70s and '80s on Devil Track Lake, that wouldn't be plowed for two or three days after a big snowstorm. And when I moved up there - I actually lived up there for about seven years - I never missed a day of work from snowstorms, not even the Halloween snowstorm of 1991. That level of services is so much better now, it's just expected," says Powers.

Ed Humphrey, 90, is a resident of Grand Marais. He takes the bus every day to lunch at the Senior Center in Grand Marais.
(MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
But those services cost money. As property values climb, so do taxes, and some here worry about lower-income local retirees who might get squeezed out of their homes. People who work with the elderly here have been creative about providing services with limited budgets. Retired social worker Lois Johnson now runs a program called SAIL - Seniors Agenda for Independent Living.

"What we're hearing from some of the people who are moving their parents here is that they're moving here because we do have good services, and they're easy to access. You know everybody, you know who's providing the service, you know how to access it. Sometimes in the cities it gets more complicated," says Johnson.

But it gets complicated in the country too, particularly when it comes to medical care. The local hospital has no specialists on staff, and people have to travel two-and-ahalf- hours to Duluth for care. But older people seem to be taking that in stride. A couple of years ago, Johnson conducted a survey of summer residents. Hundreds of them said they plan to retire here - and in a county with a population barely topping 5,000, that's a lot more elderly people on the way.

More Information:
Project 2030, an aging initiative sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Board on Aging.