Wilder Foundation’s Maureen Kenney on senior care: “We’re all about relationship building”

(First of two parts)

Maureen Kenney has lived in three worlds in senior care — as a professional caregiver, a leader in senior care and as a family caregiver.

She wouldn’t have it any other way. Kenney spent several decades as a professional caregiver, including work at a residential group home and as a recreational therapist for older adults in a nursing home setting.

“I understand the role and it’s so critical,” Kenney said. “I’m drawn to older adults and their wisdom, stories and the richness there. It’s an area of passion.”

Maureen Kenney

Mid-career, Kenney refocused her energies and enrolled in the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, studying age and disability policy and nonprofit management. Today, as the Director of Aging Services at the Wilder Foundation, Kenney leads partnerships with individuals, neighborhoods, corporations, civic leaders and other nonprofits in the St. Paul area to support older adults and informal caregivers.

“Informal family and friend caregivers are a critical piece to the story,” Kenney said. “We’re going to need more and more informal caregivers – it’s something we need to talk about.”

Kenney knows this role intimately, as she is currently a caregiver for her mother.

“I’m the geek squad, grocery gal, and play other roles; it’s something I choose to lean in on,” Kenney said. “I feel really privileged to be a caregiver for my mom.”

Growing up as the youngest of seven children, Kenney lived a few blocks away from the local nursing home where her grandmother worked.

“I grew up in a family that instilled appreciation and honoring of older adults,” Kenney said. “And because of that perspective, I was not distracted by the wheelchairs and equipment, and I got to experience older adults and loved it so much.”

Before serving as Aging Services Director at the Wilder Foundation, Kenney managed Wilder Caregiver Services from 2011 to 2016 – an experience that left another deep impression on her perspective of aging in Minnesota. While Kenney’s current position is more removed from the Wilder Foundation’s clients, she still leaps at the chance to fill in for staff on a Meals on Wheels route.

“I really enjoy working side-by-side and supporting individuals doing direct care and honoring the team that we have through supporting them in higher education and advocating for how we’re paying livable wages,” Kenney said. “I love the team environment; we all have a different role and no one is better than another.”

As demand mounts for aging support services rooted in local communities, we asked Kenney how the Wilder Foundation is helping meet the needs of Minnesota’s older adults and those who care for them. (Responses edited for length.)

Q: 60,000 Minnesotans will turn 65 this year. By 2025, 25 percent of all Minnesota adults will be seniors. What are some of the challenges that this senior boom creates in the care and support of our seniors? How is the Wilder Foundation helping meet some of those needs?

A: Older adults and caregivers are more informed advocates than in the past. People are not envisioning that they’re going to be living in care facilities. They want to remain in their communities for as long as possible. There’s always going to be a need for more intensive care in some situations, but we’re proactive with things like our adult day program. We know isolation has been bubbling up in the news and in research lately, and we know how it can impact health and wellbeing. Whether older adults come to our adult day center for a few days or five days a week, just to hear the laughter and see the relationships formed is awesome.

We also deliver healthy meals in conjunction with Metro Meals on Wheels. Nutrition is key to aging well, and it’s a relief to a family caregiver knowing that Mom or Dad is receiving a hot meal and they got up to answer the door when a volunteer knocked or rang the doorbell. That’s a piece that’s so simple, and it’s a great way to involve 300 community volunteers as part of the program. It really helps people understand the complexities of aging.

We host educational workshops for family and friend caregivers, which cover everything from transferring older adults in and out of vehicles to navigating resources. We also coordinate evidence-based health and wellness programs in the Twin Cities. Our whole focus is about living healthy for longer.

But my personal philosophy is we’re all about relationship-building. Maybe someone doesn’t need intensive services now, but when they do need them, they’ll know where to turn to. It’s scary when you’re in a crisis and you’re going on the Internet and trying to figure out the best plan. It’s comforting to have a community partner…We want to be that trusted resource. We know the network of community-based services, and we can direct them as needed.

Q: On a recent segment about elder care on Minnesota Public Radio, you emphasized the importance of having the conversation about aging with loved ones. What are practical ways families can raise this topic? What resources are available for families looking for advice on starting the conversation?

A: It’s important to have conversations to normalize it and have that introspection of “what do I want?” So, you’re not having it at a crisis point with limited options. I’m nearing that and I’m engaging with these conversations with my peers. I have always felt comfortable talking about it, whether it’s late-life or end-of-life planning, and using tools that are available like Five Wishes or Honoring Choices. Those documents walk you through what seems comfortable – what is your preference? Who do you want making the decisions?

Maureen Kenney and her mother

I did my first one at age 29. Not that I thought I was dying, but I knew it would be of value. The earlier you start to explore those questions, the more opportunities you have to be thoughtful about expressing your wishes. They’re great tools because you can change your mind.

Personally speaking, when I encouraged my parents to put their wishes in writing, I initially got resistance. And more and more, as they got comfortable with the questions and me wanting to know how they felt, the comfort level increased, and they were both able to put their wishes in writing. It’s a document that we’ve gone back to in conversations about my dad before he died with my mom, as her health declines. It’s such a helpful tool for me and my siblings to have.

Q: In a recent blog post you encouraged caregivers to talk about their experiences caring for elder loved ones. What are the three most common things you hear from caregivers? What can communities in Minnesota learn from their experiences?

A: People just start spilling when they realize someone gets this. I find that’s such a phenomenon. I know my other colleagues get the same reaction. When people find out what they do, incredible stories come forth. Really all you need to do is listen.

We have found time and time again that when family caregivers reach out to us, they are at a point of exhaustion and uncertain what they need and where to go to find resources. One of the most common things we hear is, “I’m in a crisis; what do I do?” It’s important to spend time hearing what’s going on and thinking through the immediate need, but then to ask what else is going on and how they are doing. Caregivers are exhausted and they need help navigating resources.

We do various customer satisfaction surveys and focus groups, and we have heard that the most important thing we’ve offered caregivers is to connect them with each other. We have a Friday morning coffee group for caregivers with loved ones in our adult day program, and that’s been the most valuable thing that bubbles up time and time again. It’s that empathy and not having to explain what they’re going through.

Caregivers need to share their stories and not have someone try to fix it. Listening is a gift. After the listening, it gives others the opportunity to lend support, but that listening – that someone can just share – is super critical for their health and wellbeing. People want to fix things. It’s our general nature. But caregivers feel, “I have enough people telling me, and the media telling me, what I should be doing – but here’s my story.”

Stay tuned for the second part of our conversation with Maureen Kenney!

Anna Paulson is a regulator contributor to Face Aging MN. If you want to reach her or have any questions, you can reach us at info@faceagingmn.org. Have your own story to share? We’d love to hear from you.

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