Passing on wisdom: aging expert shares insight after 35-year career

As the executive director at the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging for the past 25 years, Linda Giersdorf has experienced the rapidly growing aging population in Minnesota first hand while working with organizations to provide solutions to help our seniors age with the proper resources, support and care.

Last month, Giersdorf retired after working a total of 35 years with the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging, the designated area agency on aging for 27 counties in southwest Minnesota. The MNRAAA’s goal is to build age-friendly communities where seniors can feel respected, a part of their communities and connected across generations. She recently spoke with Face Aging MN about her career, the challenges facing the state’s growing aging population and how our communities can work together to better serve our seniors.

Q: Can you tell me a little about yourself and your family and growing up in Minnesota?

A: I grew up in Dodge County on a dairy farm. I have wonderful memories of growing up on the farm. I still miss the farm, the animals and the openness. I went to school at Minnesota State University Mankato, and I’ve lived in Mankato for over 40 years now. I have two sons. One lives in Virginia, and the other lives in St. Paul. My husband is now retired. My brother recently passed away and I have one sister in Wisconsin. I also have two kitties, Sir Solo and Madam Maybelline, and they are spoiled rotten.

Q: What drew you to working in senior care? What is your favorite part about your work?

A: A lot of it was personal and the older people that impacted my life. I unfortunately didn’t know my grandparents, but I did have two sets of aunts and uncles that filled that role for me. I loved being around them. They lived in Rochester. We didn’t take vacations, so to spend the week at their home was so much fun.

I really respect what older people have done in their lives. They have so much wisdom and perspective about life. As a provider and agency, we want to do what we can to help ensure the years in older life are what our elders want them to be.

Q: Based on your experience, do you think Minnesota is prepared to meet the needs of our rapidly growing senior population?

A: I think Minnesota has been very progressive. I think there are more partnerships and more agencies working together, but because of the workforce shortage and because we have so many rural areas, we are not prepared to meet the needs of our rapidly growing senior population. One of the problems is there must be an economy of scale in order for providers to offer their services in rural, remote areas. Many of our counties have a high percentage of older adults, but the overall number of older adults is fairly small and only some need services.

Q:  What is one challenge you faced in providing care and services to Minnesota seniors in the counties you served?

A: One challenge is the growing number of older adults and being able to meet their needs. One agency can’t address all of their needs. If there is one thing that I’ve learned it’s that partnerships are very important. We need to work together to provide the best services and the best care we can for our older adults.

Q: What do you think Minnesota needs to do to support caregivers and attract young people to the profession?

A: For direct care workers, we need to look at their salaries and benefits. People (who) work in that field need to have a salary that will support themselves and their family. Another thing that can be done is employers looking at what they can to do retain their staff. For example, paid time off and flexibility with schedules. Especially, since many working caregivers have a variety of commitments to juggle.

For young people, opportunities in volunteering and working in long-term care can make a big difference in what they choose as a career.

We had a college student that interned with us, and she said that her internship really made a difference in wanting to work in the field of aging. Now, she’s working with older adults and loves it.

Q: How do you think communities, families, agencies, legislators, seniors and caregivers should work together to address senior needs?

A: One thing we can do is look at the community that we live in and ask, “Is my community age friendly? Are there services a person might need when they become frail?” Offering transportation and medical services are things a community can do to become age friendlier. Does a community have sidewalks for people with motorized scooters? Often times, making a community age friendlier makes it better for the community as a whole. I think for more rural areas, broadband and Internet is definitely a need. Broadband services affect our schools and our healthcare system.

Q: By 2030, 25 percent of Minnesota’s adult population will be 65 or older. What is your advice for seniors and their families as we face this demographic shift?

A: As a younger person, know what your older loved ones would want if they became frail and needed care. As an older adult, be proactive and let your family know what your preferences are. Often times, I see decisions that are crisis-driven that could have been more intentional about what a senior wanted to do. Secondly, become familiar with resources that are out there so when a crisis arises, you know where to go to get information that you need. Know about the Senior LinkAge Line and the resources available on the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ website.

Q: What are your plans for retirement?

A: My plan is to take things slowly and not have a set schedule, so when something comes up I can say, “Yeah, I can do that!” Hopefully, my husband and I will do some traveling. I want to have time to sit and read a book for more than five minutes at a time. I want to spend more time with my family, see what adventures are out there and do some volunteering.

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