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Hilda Brauch, left, chats with Barb Wilson. The Living at Home relationships are mutually beneficial. (Submitted photo)

Senior independence celebrated

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Baby boomers are coming of age; 2011 is the first year the generation will reach 65.

And Living at Home is gearing up for the "tsunami."

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February has been declared National Senior Independence Month. The Living at Home program augments what, for most, is an innate desire to maintain an independent lifestyle.

"The program is a lifesaver," said Lisa Hayes, who cares for her mother on a 24-7 basis. Betty Hayes is in a latter stage of Alzheimer's disease.

"It gives me peace of mind," Lisa said of leaving her in the care of the volunteers to run errands, meet a friend for lunch or keep an appointment.

"They are beautiful people. I feel so fortunate. They are almost like family."

The "neighbors helping neighbors" initiative had 133 active volunteers in 2010, donating 5,300 hours of time.

A total of 236 seniors were served in Park Rapids, Nevis, Akeley and Osage last year.

Transportation and respite for caregivers are paramount needs.

"It's a good experience for both of us," volunteer Larry Bexell said of his role as chauffeur to doctor's appointments - in Fargo and Park Rapids - and trips to the grocery store. He steps in to offer respite care and serves as a handyman on occasion.

Making the acquaintance of a 97-year-old gentleman, initially "a crabby old coot," has been a highlight of Bexell's two-year experience with the program.

The curmudgeon soon evolved to companion and a friendship formed. The duo played games and conversed, a near century of experiences shared seated under the pines.

"He's seen a lot of changes," Bexell said, cars among them. "He told me his favorites and least favorites."

Now in a nursing home, he remains "feisty but fun. He has a good attitude."

Bexell sees the services offered by Living at Home as underused. "People who have a need should call," he advises.

Revolutionary generation

Executive director Susan Ramse explains Living at Home is not a single program but part of a network, developed statewide.

Locally, the program works with a coalition of churches, social workers, Heartland Homes, Mahube and assisted living centers, to develop a resource center for senior services.

Living at Home volunteers come from all walks of life - ranging from retired professionals to moms with school-age children. But they share a common denominator: a desire to help their neighbor.

Care coordinator Beth Waller facilitates, connecting care volunteers with receivers.

All volunteers are screened, background checks are conducted and they undergo training, advanced schooling for those offering respite care.

Living at Home does not bill for services but donations are welcome. Currently the program is 47 percent grant funded, but Ramse anticipates those dollars will diminish.

Ramse foresees the emerging generation of seniors presenting unprecedented demands, because of their history. "They made changes."

These are people who've completed college, were engaged in civil rights and equal rights movements. They were the first generation to protest war.

The "revolutionaries" will likely exact change, she forecasts.

Community support necessary

The program administrates an Early Memory Care Project that "provides people in the earliest stages of memory loss with optimal control over their lives to help sustain cognitive function, reduce premature decline and reduce emotional and psychological distress for family caregivers."

Laurel Hed serves as caregiver support coach.

In March, Ramse and Hed will offer "Powerful Tools for Caregivers," a six-week course to empower those caring for someone with the tools to take better care of themselves.

A caregiver's role carries a variety of stress factors, Ramse explained of safety, financial, legal and other issues. "And siblings are not always on the same page."

A spousal caregiver assumes sole responsibility, which can "encompass, overwhelm," Ramse said.

She speaks from experience. Ramse lost her husband to an eight-month battle with an aggressive form of cancer. Her son was 23 months old when he died.

As people live longer, the role of caregiver will become common, for spouses and children.

"Seniors have so much to offer," Ramse said of their stories of perseverance during the Depression and war eras, raising children on lean incomes. "And they are so appreciative" of the services offered.

"Serving seniors will continue, but we need ongoing community support," Ramse said, "to maintain dignity and quality of life.

"We want to keep seniors in their homes as long as safely possible."

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