Support from Prairie Five Community Action Council and funding from the Paul and Alma Schwan Aging Trust Fund of Southwest Initiative Foundation help older adults age in place
Aging well is having time for a card game with friends, visiting over coffee and babysitting grandkids. It’s mowing the lawn, experimenting in the kitchen, practicing faith, weathering losses, helping others.
“For me it’s being able to do the things I want to do and still be able to weave my way through a life that’s in some ways becoming less complicated and, in some ways, becoming more complicated,” said John Davidson of Canby.
John was part of coffee and conversation in the Canby Community Center in August at an Age Well Live Wisely gathering hosted by Laura Thomas, Prairie Five Community Action Council’s Director of Aging Well.
Happy to be back together at the group’s first in-person social since the pandemic, John was visiting at a table with Barb and Virgil Vanstrom, who live outside Canby on the farm where both Barb and her father were born. They talked about how hard it’s been to be apart and not being able to lean on relationships in the same way during the last year. Barb joined one Zoom group Laura hosted and has appreciated the other ways the Director of Aging Well fills the gaps.
“She is wonderful and so knowledgeable and willing to help,” Barb said.
When John had trouble understanding his Medicare coverage, Laura was there to search for answers. Last year alone, Laura met with 250 people to answer Medicare questions. She also helped John find specialized glasses for a vision problem that makes it hard to drive at night.
“If people don’t know where to turn with a question, they’ll give a call and we’ll help them get connected,” said Laura, who started at Prairie Five in 2018 and has focused on building relationships. “It’s someone from the area, a voice you know and recognize to walk you through to get what you need.”
Laura’s role is funded by a multi-year grant from the Paul and Alma Schwan Aging Trust Endowment Fund at Southwest Initiative Foundation. Older adults are the foundation of vibrant and welcoming communities in our region, and the Aging Trust Fund maximizes the social and economic contributions of elders throughout southwest Minnesota by keeping them well and engaged in community life.
“This permanent resource helps communities actively involve, value and support older adults. Partners like Prairie Five Community Action Council are key to this work in southwest Minnesota,” said Nancy Fasching, SWIF Vice President for Community Impact.
Southwest Minnesota leads the state in percentage of population age 85 or better, according to data from Minnesota Compass. Prairie Five Community Action Council serves a rural five-county region that has the oldest population in the state. It includes Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties. Prairie Five works with communities here to address local needs and gaps, enabling older adults to age in place.
By the numbers – Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties
- Total population of 42,841
- 4 percent of households have one or more people age 65 and better
- Of the household residents living along, 15.5 percent are age 65 and better
Source: Minnesota Compass, Economic Development Region 6W – Upper Minnesota Valley
“Having this age friendly grant from SWIF has allowed us to have a large-scale impact as well as an individual impact on people,” Laura said. “I think we are so lucky to have this grant, these funds available to be able to serve our older adults this way.”
A leader in rural aging services delivery, Prairie Five has created a strong network of collaborators within communities, developed meaningful connections and trust with older residents and expanded aging and adult services offered in the region.
One thing that makes Prairie Five unique is that staff take services right to the doorsteps or communities of older adults. Whether it’s the mobile community center, the tablet lending library, meal delivery or an in-person appointment to answer questions – the resources come to them.
“Everything is relationship-based and we understand the importance of being present in the communities that we provide services to,” said Laura, who makes her home in Benson.
When the pandemic hit, the community action agency was able move quickly when everything felt “upside down.” Laura offered the reassurance of a friendly voice to field questions over the phone. She also has a newspaper column that runs in nine area papers every other week, and she used that to get information about resources and opportunities out to the communities. As daily life moved online, Laura looked for ways to implement a tablet lending program. Another grant from SWIF helped fund Wi-Fi enabled tablets and training.
“Not only do we offer the tablets, but we also offer tablet services. What I found was a lot of people who were calling actually had their own device … but they had so many questions on how to use it. I saw that there was a need just for general education,” Laura said.
Through the uncertainty of COVID-19, Laura stayed connected with the Age Well Live Wisely groups online and put together care packages for members who used to attend in person. The gatherings are a place for fellowship, entertainment and education. With a background in education, Laura has enjoyed searching for subjects that will inspire great conversations and appeal to everyone, especially as social groups begin to gather in person again. She’s a certified community educator for the Alzheimer’s Association and recently completed training to join the AARP Speakers Bureau.
“We talk about older folks as being other than we are. I always think about, ‘What do I want to learn? What do I want to know about this topic?’ I don’t want to be bored with what I’m teaching. I want to do this because it’s relevant and timely and interesting – that engages everyone. It’s not an ‘us-them’ approach. It’s a ‘we’ approach,” Laura said. “That’s how Community Action looks at things too. We believe the community is the expert. We’re all headed in the same direction. We all have something invested in aging well.”
Mike Baer was at the recent Age Well Live Wisely group in Canby. He had a hard year after losing his wife, Joyce, in January 2020 at the age of 70. He’s spent time with his hobby of experimenting with cooking and baking; he mows lawns once in awhile and meets friends Wanda and Bob Eilers for Saturday breakfast as well as the Age Well Live Wisely gatherings.
“I’m happy God got me to this age, this far. I hope I can keep going,” Mike said.
“Nobody ever feels like they’re old,” Laura said. “Sometimes your body will remind you that you’re aging, but inside people say, ‘Well, I don’t feel like I’m old.’”
What makes a good life?
What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it’s fame and money, you’re not alone – but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you’re mistaken. As the director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction. The Live Well Age Wisely group in Canby recently watched Waldinger’s TED talk, where he shares three important lessons learned from the study as well as some practical, old-as-the-hills wisdom on how to build a fulfilling, long life.Check out the TED Talk