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Aging with wisdom: New initiative helps seniors age with purpose and confidence

WILLMAR -- The topic was decluttering, and guest speakers Sheila Rohne and Trisha Hubers had plenty of tips and advice to share from their experience as the mother-daughter owners of Clean Slate. Their words weren't lost on the 40-some people att...

Erica Dischino / TribuneSuzanne Nelsen listens to the guest speakers during an Aging Wisely meeting Sept. 6 at the Willmar Community Center. The topic that day was downsizing and decluttering. Upcoming areas of interest include nutrition, technology, music and Medicare.
Erica Dischino / Tribune Suzanne Nelsen listens to the guest speakers during an Aging Wisely meeting Sept. 6 at the Willmar Community Center. The topic that day was downsizing and decluttering. Upcoming areas of interest include nutrition, technology, music and Medicare.

WILLMAR - The topic was decluttering, and guest speakers Sheila Rohne and Trisha Hubers had plenty of tips and advice to share from their experience as the mother-daughter owners of Clean Slate.

Their words weren't lost on the 40-some people attending a recent session of Aging Wisely, a new local initiative to help adults steer through their 60s, 70s and beyond with purpose and confidence.

Heads nodded here and there when Hubers told them the key to successfully downsizing and decluttering is to make it a priority. "If you're not in it 100 percent, it won't happen," she said.

Ripples of knowing laughter spread around the room as Rohne and Hubers shared stories about overcoming the urge to save.

Hands rose with questions. Several people had stories of their own to share.

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The afternoon wrapped up with a healthful snack of greens, tuna salad, dates and almonds. As the room slowly emptied, a handful of people lingered to chat over coffee.

For the team in charge of Aging Wisely, the meeting accomplished everything they wanted: companionship, information, sharing and validation for older adults.

"We're very proud of this group," said Carrie Van Epps.

The initiative grew out of the Idea Fund, a project by Healthy Together Willmar to develop innovative ways of promoting health equity among populations that are marginalized or lack access to opportunities that meet their health needs.

Van Epps, a nurse, filled her early retirement years with volunteer work in Africa but had recently ended this and was feeling adrift.

"I lost my purpose," she said.

Then she heard last fall about the Idea Fund, which was looking for creative projects to support.

For Van Epps, it opened a door onto the need for older adults to continue to feel valued and useful.

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"I thought if I've lost my purpose, I'm not the only one," she said. "There's a lot of people out there who would be more confident and healthier if they found a purpose."

She put together a video application to the Idea Fund and was successful in receiving a grant. Additional funding came from the Willmar Area Community Foundation and the United Way of West Central Minnesota.

"Aging Wisely: Finding New Confidence and Purpose" was launched in May. It meets twice a month, on the first and third Thursday, at 1:30 p.m. at the Willmar Community Center.

The four team members who coordinate Aging Wisely were drawn to the project for different reasons but share a passion for the cause.

In a society that often devalues older people or consigns them to invisibility, there's a need to support this population in continuing to live vital, meaningful lives, they said.

"Even though you age, your knowledge still has worth," Pat Radabaugh said. "You still have purpose. There's a lot you can do. Aging doesn't have to be sitting in a rocking chair."

"All the knowledge we need is right here in this room," Van Epps agreed.

The meetings offer a chance for people to keep learning - not only from guest speakers but from each other as well, Evy Hatjistilianos said.

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"There's been a lot of storytelling," she said.

Initially the organizers were unsure how many people would come. They worried: What if no one showed up?

But there was interest from the start. Attendance averages 18 to 20 people each time, and the recent program on decluttering had a record 42 participants. The group ranges from relatively young retirees in their 60s to those in their 80s and even 90s.

"We're trying to be welcoming and inviting them to come back," said Bonita Kallestad. "It's great to see the socializing and the connections. We're having new people come every time."

Surveys help decide the topics for each meeting. Downsizing and decluttering were high on many people's lists, hence the recent guest speakers. Upcoming areas of interest include nutrition, technology, music and Medicare. There's an emphasis on good health and local resources.

"As time progresses, we come up with more things people want to know about," Van Epps said. "I'm not challenged in finding a topic."

Four months in, the organizers see the beginnings of a community. People often bring home leftovers neighbor-style or check out books from a mini-library that Kallestad sets up at each meeting. Some regular participants have started coming early or staying late to help set up the room and clean up afterward.

Van Epps sees a growing comfort level with speaking up. During a program on dementia, for example, people candidly shared their fears of developing dementia, she said.

"I'm hoping the people become more and more open and share about what's going on in their lives," she said. "It becomes a form of peer support."

Current funding will carry Aging Wisely through April 2019, but Van Epps hopes to find new funding sources to keep the program going.

Participants tell her that Aging Wisely is filling a gap for older adults who want to remain healthy and happy and connected, she said. "I have gotten really good feedback. People say this is so needed."

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