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Senior programs in rural Minnesota are threatened
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Senior Companion volunteers help frail seniors with a variety of household chores. The goal is to help seniors stay in their own homes rather than nursing homes. Bernie Koedter, left, helps Lorene Haaversen, 94, prepare her grocery list. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Some vulnerable seniors in Minnesota would feel the pinch of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed budget cuts. Pawlenty's plan to fix the state's $4.2 billion budget deficit includes elimination of state funding for a number of senior services, including the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs.

Pawlenty's plan would essentially shut the programs down in rural Minnesota. Program administrators say the cuts could force hundreds of frail seniors from their homes and into more expensive care facilities.

Bemidji, Minn. — Lorene Haaversen is 94 years old. Haaversen, a retired school teacher, has been a widow for 23 years. She's lived in the same home in Bemidji since 1945, and she wants to stay there. But Haaversen broke her hip last September. She spent a month in the hospital. Now her dining room has been converted to a bedroom. She has trouble getting around.

"I can't go anyplace else in the house, just here. And I've fallen nine times since I got home," said Haaversen.

Haaversen gets help from Bernie Koedter, who turns 76 this month. Koedter is a volunteer with a program called Senior Companions. The program gets about $600,000 annually from the state. That money pays low income senior volunteers for mileage and a small stipend, about $2.65 an hour.

She gets my groceries, she goes to the bank for me, she gets my meds for me ... I wouldn't be here in my house except for her and other helpers from the county nursing service.
- Lorene Haaversen, 94

Volunteers like Koedter provide friendship and assistance to seniors still living independently. The goal is to help them stay in their own homes and out of nursing homes.

Last year, 2,400 elderly Minnesotans received in-home support from some 500 Senior Companions. Koedter helps Haaversen with all sorts of household chores, like compiling a weekly grocery list.

Haaversen's family can't help much. None of them live nearby. Her friends are also old and frail. She says without her Senior Companion, she'd have nowhere else to turn for the help she needs.

"She gets my groceries, she goes to the bank for me, she gets my meds for me, and she does all kinds of little things around the house here for me," Haaversen said. "It's been wonderful. I wouldn't be here in my house except for her and other helpers from the county nursing service."

A county nurse comes by to visit Haaversen once a month. She gets visits twice a week from a home health aide. And she also gets regular housecleaning help through another county service. Her Senior Companion takes care of the things the other programs don't cover.

There are about 45 Senior Companion volunteers in a five-county area around Bemidji. Together, they handle about 400 clients. A Senior Companion working 20 hours a week costs the state about $3,000 a year, including mileage. Koedter says, compared to the $30,000 it would cost for nursing home care, it's money well spent. She's hoping the governor will reconsider.

The Senior Companion program is one of many valuable programs that are out there. But we have other supports in place.
- Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno

"I wonder if he really understands how much money he is getting back for his dollar that he spends on this program," said Koedter. "We're willing to take a cut or do something about it -- take our share. But not 100 percent. That seems kind of risky and kind of unfair."

Pawlenty administration officials admit some worthy programs face elimination to balance the budget. Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says even with the cuts, under the governor's plan overall spending on social services increases by eight percent.

"The Senior Companion program is one of many valuable programs that are out there," said Goodno. "But, you know, we have other supports in place. We have the Alternative Care program and the Elderly Waiver program that should provide direct services to people who are at risk of going into nursing homes."

But those programs are for seniors with low incomes. Many vulnerable elderly people won't qualify. Mar Kuha works for the non-profit Lutheran Social Service agency. She's regional manager of the Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent programs. Kuha says there are more than 1,200 seniors getting Senior Companion services in rural Minnesota. She estimates about half of those would end up in nursing homes or other more expensive care if the program were scrapped.

"I cannot imagine what these people will do without their visits," said Kuha. "These are not the programs to target. The poor, the elderly, did not bring this budget issue on this state. They are not the folks that should hold the weight and carry the weight of balancing it."

Minnesota's elderly are not the only ones affected by the governor's cuts. School kids will lose out, too. The governor has cut nearly $1 million from the Foster Grandparent program -- more than one-third of the program's budget.

While federal dollars will allow the Foster Grandparent program to continue in the metro area, it would be eliminated in rural Minnesota. Foster Grandparents provide tutoring and mentoring in the classroom to nearly 5,000 students with special needs. Kuha says the loss of foster grandpas and grandmas will increase the workload for teachers.

"They are the heart of a classroom," she said. "Teachers are overwhelmed. There are way too many kids in classrooms. These are the folks who can be the loving hand."

Kuha and her colleagues say the Foster Grandparent program is one that works. Last year, 85 percent of kids involved did better in school because of it. There are about 40 Foster Grandparents in the Bemidji School District. Each one works with a handful of students.

Pat Grimes coordinates those volunteers. She says without Foster Grandparents, some students might not be able to keep up with their classmates. Foster Grandparents cost schools nothing. Grimes says with the current budget situation, school districts probably couldn't afford to replace them.

"If the district was having to actually pay for all of those services, it would cost our school district well over $400,000," said Grimes. "And that would be a huge impact. I doubt the Bemidji School District could handle that right now, because they're already looking at cuts."

The governor's cuts to senior volunteer programs total more than $2 million over the next biennium. It would mean the loss of hundreds of volunteers who provide services to thousands, especially in rural Minnesota. Some rural lawmakers say they'll fight to salvage the programs.

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