Data Spotlights Trends and Disparities, and Calls for Increased Investments to Ensure All Minnesota Women Can Thrive
The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFMN), in partnership with the University of Minnesota Humphrey School Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy, released new research on the status of older women in Minnesota, ages 55 and older. Through data disaggregated by gender, race, place, and age, the report focused on the impacts of housing, transportation, healthcare, caregiving, and economics on the lives of older women in the state. View the report.
For 35 years, the Foundation has conducted research to raise awareness and increase pathways to economic opportunity, safety, wellness, and equal leadership for all Minnesota women and girls. The research also informs WFMN’s grantmaking and policy agenda and identifies areas where further research is needed.
The report shows that the lives of Minnesota’s older women are evolving, reflecting significant changes in women’s workforce participation and expanded opportunities. At the same time, disparities exist based on age, and these disparities are even greater for the increasing number of older women of color, American Indian women, rural women, and LGBTQ+ people in the state.
“Older women are a vital part of our state, contributing significantly to our economy and to their families,” said Roper-Batker. “Historic inequities have followed our state’s older women into retirement, resulting in too many women living in poverty.”
By 2020, for the first time in history, Minnesota’s 65+ population is expected to eclipse the K-12 population ages 5-17. And by 2030, it is estimated that 1 in 5 Minnesotans will be an older adult, including all baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), nearly 56% of whom are women.
“This special edition of the Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota research is a call to increase investments in state and community solutions that ensure all women, regardless of age, can contribute and thrive,” said Roper-Batker.
The research shows that older women in Minnesota are becoming more diverse. They are more likely to be in the paid labor force, a phenomenon that will continue to grow even among women over 65 so that by 2050, their lifetime working trajectory will closely mirror that of men. They are as educated as men in their age cohort and are more likely to be living independently for all or part of their lives. Many older women flourish in widowhood or otherwise as single women, with greater economic independence that creates more options in living situations. And older women remain critical contributors to the state’s economy as unpaid caregivers for spouses, parents, and increasingly, grandchildren.
“Older women are the glue that holds many of our families together,” said Debra Fitzpatrick, co-director, University of Minnesota Humphrey School Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy and lead researcher of the report. “It is just that today, they are doing so more frequently, while juggling the demands of a paid job.”
Because they comprise the majority of seniors in the state, almost all aging issues have a greater impact on women. Others, like employment discrimination, just play out in unique ways for older women.
Safe, Affordable Housing
Nationally, Minnesota leads a shift toward seniors staying in their homes as long as possible. While increased aging-in-place has many potential benefits, it can come at a cost for many older women and their families.
“Research shows that many older women thrive when they are able to age in their own home,” said Roper-Batker. “But we need to acknowledge that there are also challenges and consequences for the family members, often women, that provide the support that makes aging in place possible.”
While more women are able to age in their homes, the research shows that Minnesota’s older women are much more likely to need assisted living or nursing home care during their lifetimes than their male counterparts.
In Minnesota, costs for both types of housing are increasing at a faster pace than the national average and there have been significant safety concerns about this unregulated market. Women represent an estimated two-thirds or 20,000 of the 30,000 Minnesotans living in nursing homes and 51,000 (85%) of the 60,000 in assisted living facilities.
“Without earned income, many older women must rely on accumulated wealth, including home equity, as they age,” said Roper-Batker. “The research shows that home ownership disparities resulting from decades of discriminatory lending, redlining, and other policies that affect women of color and American Indian women contribute to greater economic instability and vulnerability.”
Housing affordability is a significant problem in Minnesota, more so for the state’s aging women. As home ownership declines and renting increases, many renters struggle with affordability. The research shows that among women renters 55 and older, less than half are in affordable housing. Almost half of Minnesota’s 85-year-old-plus women renters are paying 50% or more of family income on rent, while 30% or less is considered affordable.
Mobility and Transportation
Engagement in work, civic, social, and community life contributes to greater economic stability, health, well-being, and quality of life for the state’s older women, and often requires the ability to get around.
“For all of us, in the absence of robust aging-friendly public transportation, driving is fundamental to independence and well-being,” said Fitzpatrick. “Unfortunately, the research shows that older women outlive their driving days by 11 years compared to 6 years for men. Women, especially women of color, are more likely to be non-drivers or former drivers than white men, even with similar levels of cognitive and physical ability.”
For many older Minnesota women, adequate services are not in place to replace a loss of driving capacity. Approximately 70% of Minnesota women over 65 live outside the urban-core counties of Hennepin and Ramsey where public transportation options are more limited or difficult to provide.
Lack of mobility is associated with lower life satisfaction, fewer social roles (reduced caregiving, network of friends, and social engagement), increased depression, lower physical health and accelerated health decline, and more rapid decline in cognitive ability.
Healthcare and Well-Being
While access to high-quality, affordable healthcare is critical for Minnesota women at all ages of life, health for the state’s older women is also deeply dependent on their lifelong social and economic environment.
“A large body of research shows how health disparities earlier in life often lead to chronic lifelong conditions that older women must manage and, more often, do so with fewer resources,” according to Roper-Batker.
The cost of doctor visits more often prevents Minnesota women of color, American Indian women, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ women from obtaining healthcare. While 10% of Minnesota white women, ages 55-64, report that they could not see a doctor because of costs, 32% of Latina women, 18% of African American women, 12% of American Indian women, and 16% of lesbians cited this barrier to access.
“While women have longer life expectancies than men — a gap that is closing — new robust research finds that they often spend many of their extra years in poor health and disability,” said Fitzpatrick.
Giving and Receiving Care
In Minnesota, women 55 and older are both the majority of those receiving care in old age and the majority providing such care, often unpaid and in the prime earning years of their life.
According to the research, healthcare cost-saving efforts that move recovery and care out of hospitals more quickly and into homes can have serious health consequences for older women, especially those living alone.
“Ironically, many women who have dedicated their lives to providing the care that keeps their spouses from entering nursing homes find themselves alone in old age, without reciprocal care — a key reason that more older women end up in such institutions and for longer periods of time,” Fitzpatrick points out.
The research shows that Minnesota women aged 85 and older are more likely than men to have difficulties that require support from a caregiver.
Women now spend just as many years providing care for elderly parents (18 years) as they do dependent children, and increasingly at the same time. Nearly a quarter of full-time working mothers in Minnesota report eldercare during the past three months. Among women, Latina and African American caregivers experience higher caregiving burdens and spend more time caregiving on average than their white or Asian American counterparts.
The care landscape varies for women of different backgrounds. Minnesota’s rural caregivers have less access to family-friendly workplace benefits — like paid leave, flexible hours, and telecommuting — that make caregiving financially and logistically possible. They are also more likely to be providing care to non-relatives than their urban counterparts.
LGBTQ+ women are more likely to live alone, less likely to have children to care for them, and more likely to be estranged from other family members than their heterosexual counterparts. Both scenarios result in less access to informal unpaid care.
Financial Well-Being and Stability
“Older women can be an important part of solving the state’s labor force shortage,” said Roper-Batker. “Older women are staying in the paid labor force longer due to financial necessity, good health, and longer life expectancies. This is good news for the state and can be built upon.”
While the workforce participation rates of older women climb and are predicted to equal those of similar men in the coming decades, older women face the double disadvantage of age and gender discrimination as they seek to stay employed. These disadvantages are compounded by race and ethnicity for the state’s women of color and American Indian women.
“This barrier is keeping much-needed talent on the sidelines,” shared Fitzpatrick. “Discrimination is inefficient. Addressing bias against older women and helping caregivers could bring many older women back into the labor force where their contributions are badly needed.”
According to the research, there are nearly twice as many Minnesota women above the age of 64 living in poverty than men. By comparison, white men across the state are the only ones with total personal income that exceeds the cost of living for an individual over 50.
Median income for Minnesota women over 65 falls more than $13,000 short of the statewide cost-of-living for a single person over 50; for the state’s Latina, African American, and Asian American women that deficit grows to $17,900, $18,849, and $21,428, respectively.
About the Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota project
Launched in 2009, Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota is an ongoing collaborative research project of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Humphrey School Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy. Data specific to Minnesota women and girls is gathered and analyzed in economics, safety, health, and leadership. The project represents a unique approach to research by using a gender-race-geography-equity lens.
The data reviewed and included here comes from published reports produced by government agencies and nonprofits, and original gender-based analysis of publicly available datasets (such as the American Community Survey and the Behavioral Risk Surveillance Survey).