Housing-based initiative promotes physical, mental wellness for older adults in Willmar

An initiative at Highland Apartments in Willmar is tapping into exercise, nutrition, art, gardening and more to enhance the physical and mental well-being of tenants who are aging and disabled.

Resident Maria Hernandez begins her painting during a painting class Sept. 26 at the Highland Apartments in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — On a recent evening at Highland Apartments, a painting class was getting underway. Fourteen people sat before canvases propped on easels, paint brushes ready.

"We're going to start with the big purple brush, the biggest you have," explained instructor Alli Freiborg of Gallery on the Go. "We're going to prime the canvas with water."

The room grew quiet as brushes swished over canvas.

Freiborg moved to the next step: "We're going to put a white circle in the middle of the canvas. That's going to be your moon."

As the painting — a cat silhouetted against a full moon in a deep blue nighttime sky — began taking shape, a buzz of conversation and laughter rose to fill the room.


It was exactly what Karen Raske hoped for. "It's fun to see them do this," said Raske, housing program specialist at Highland Apartments in Willmar.

For the past year, a project has been underway at Highland to enhance physical and mental well-being for a tenant population that is older, living with disabilities and often left out of the community mainstream. The effort is funded by an $11,000 grant from the Idea Fund of Healthy Together Willmar, an initiative sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota to develop innovative grassroots strategies for promoting health equity, especially among underserved populations.

It's something that is needed, Raske said.

The 78-unit housing complex, operated by the Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, is for low-income or disabled adults 62 and older. Many don't have family nearby and they often face barriers to community participation, Raske said.

"They do get isolated in society," she said. "A lot of them lead as normal a life as anybody but there are obstacles."

Her hope is that offering new experiences, purposeful activities and social connection will improve life for Highland's tenants.

"We've been trying to give everybody more opportunities," she said. "We're looking at the holistic health of people."

In the months since the Idea Fund grant was awarded, there's been a host of activities and events, from art classes to field trips. The tenants themselves help decide what they would like to see, Raske said.


This past spring, 37 people went on a field trip to the Como Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul. For many, it was the first time they had ever visited a zoo, Raske said. "They talked about it for weeks."

Highland partnered with MNyou Youth Garden to install three raised beds for growing outdoor vegetables. Through another partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, a series of cooking classes was provided — with a giveaway of a free crock pot and blender to participants who attended every session.

The grant helped fund the purchase of recumbent exercise bikes, weights and stretch bands to create fitness centers on all three floors of the building. Other activities have included a catered Easter dinner, a night at a Willmar Stingers baseball game and painting classes. The addition of a DVD and Roku to the community room has been especially popular.

Bev Smithwick, 66, regularly uses one of the exercise bikes and says she has lost more than 20 pounds. Other highlights for her have been the cooking classes and a Stingers game.

"I enjoyed everything that I did," she said. "I'm glad we have all this."

Terry Stein, 72, was among those joining the recent painting class. He's also a fan of the new recumbent bikes, saying the exercise helps him with leg and back pain. He quickly figured out how to customize the bike's settings and now uses it four times a week.

"It works very well. I'm glad it's here," said Stein, 72. "Exercise is important to me."

For Merry Sue Nelson, it's all about gardening. Nelson, 67, is a trained master gardener and used to have an enormous garden at her home in Dawson but had to give it up four years ago after her husband died.


"Losing my husband was really hard but losing my garden was almost as bad," she said.

Now she can step outside and tend the flowers and herbs growing along the fence. Other tenants often join her and help with the watering and weeding.

"Everyone here really enjoys it and that's fun. It's wonderful to be able to do this," Nelson said.

Raske estimates that 65 to 70 percent of the tenants at Highland have participated in at least one of the activities offered through the Idea Fund grant. "We try to do different things to keep them interested. It's good for them to explore," she said.

For many, it has been a creative outlet and a source of stimulation and social connection, Raske said. She already is looking for new funding sources to keep the program going after the Idea Fund grant expires at the end of the year. The project has sparked interest from other HRA-run housing as well, she added.

"I desperately want to continue this. I think our board is thinking the same way," she said. "There are a lot of success stories. All of these people are thriving because of it."

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