Serendipity sparks new ideas to meet needs of an aging population

Colloquium event photo - Aging

Minnesota’s population is aging. According to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, the number of adults age 65 or older is anticipated to double between 2010 and 2030. As this portion of the population grows larger, Minnesota will have to prepare for its growing needs, from transportation to nursing homes.

In anticipation of these upcoming challenges, University of Minnesota researchers gathered with experts from industry, community groups and nonprofits Tuesday to explore “Big Ideas and Compelling Issues in Aging,” the second event in the University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia series. Over 80 experts from across disciplines and sectors came together to identify some of the most pressing issues related to aging and discover opportunities for new partnerships and programs that can meet those needs.

“Bringing people of different expertise and backgrounds together creates fertile ground for the type of serendipitous thinking that leads to innovation,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “By combining university research expertise with the practical knowledge of industry, nonprofits and community groups, we can create partnerships that have the ingenuity and capacity needed to make a difference.”

Minnesota’s aging population, at its peak as the baby boomer generation hits retirement age, is expected to influence a wide range of employment, housing and community needs in the years to come. Cities will need to balance transportation costs and transit demands for a greater number of people who are unable to drive and may have limited mobility, especially in rural areas where there are fewer public transit options. Medical treatment and caregiving for older adults with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases will impact families and the healthcare system. Senior residents from all races, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds will need access to safe, supportive communities that allow them to maintain a sense of independence and identity. And, as baby boomers retire, employers will also need to find new workers to fill job vacancies left behind.

To shed light on some of the largest challenges surrounding an aging population, the colloquium featured eight catalyst presentations from guest speakers both within and outside of the university. Speakers included organizations like SHIFT, which supports people’s lifestyle and career goals during mid-life transitions, and the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, which noted that aging is the largest challenge facing Minnesota’s economy.

Through the two rounds of discussion that followed, colloquium attendees huddled together in groups of five to 10, with each one focusing on a separate question related to aging. In each case, experts in social work, public health, policy and more contributed to a lively small-group discussion before distilling their ideas down to several key points and sharing them with the rest of the colloquium attendees.

The questions spanned a wide range of subjects, from providing elderly residents in rural communities with transportation options to identifying caregivers and finding ways to support them. Some led to unique ideas that could lead to improved care for Minnesota’s aging population, while others unearthed more in-depth questions ripe for further investigation. Participants considered what it meant for retired residents to age “in place” — in their own homes instead of in nursing homes or other communities — and noted a need to better understand what it means for people to have a sense of place and what role it plays in their personal identities. Meanwhile, a group looking to reduce fatal crashes among senior drivers debated what role self-driving car technology might play in the near future.

Attendee Mary Jo Shifsky, executive director of volunteer-based shopping and delivery service Store to Door, said she found her experience at the colloquium rewarding.

“The day provided several opportunities for discovery, exploration and collaboration,” Shifsky said. “I enjoyed the cross-fertilization of academics with practitioners/service providers and am following up today to learn more about topics I was introduced to yesterday.”

Serendipity Grants on Aging

The U’s Office of the Vice President for Research is accepting proposals from colloquium attendees for serendipity grants based on concepts discussed at the colloquium.  The grants aim to provide an initial investment of up to $30,000 in collaborations that can further cultivate promising new research ideas.

Those who would like to submit a proposal must first submit a letter of intent by Friday, May 29. Proposals are due 30 days after the event and must engage partners outside the U of M.

“The next step is to act on these ideas. We don’t want to lose the momentum that’s coming out of these conversations,” said Carissa Slotterback, Ph.D., director of research engagement. “Ultimately, we want to connect research happening here at the U with industry and community needs and make Minnesota better suited to meet the needs of its aging residents.”

The U’s Convergence Colloquia will resume in the fall.