Wilder Foundation’s Maureen Kenney on senior care: “Create communities across lifespans”

(Second of two parts)

Maureen Kenney

As we continued our conversation with Maureen Kenney, the Aging Services Director of the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, we asked Kenney to speak to the caregiving landscape in Minnesota – what’s working, what further action is needed and how all Minnesotans can better support caregivers. (Responses edited for length.)

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your personal experience as a caregiver and how that has influenced you?

A: I have lived in the space of being a professional caregiver. Being a direct staff member gave me an opportunity to be a leader who has a realistic perspective of the hard work and the need for really good support staff in this industry. We have to prioritize how to create recognition of the hard work being done and support those roles.

I’ve also, through the years, been an informal caregiver. I’m the youngest of seven and we’re navigating the opportunity to support our mom, who is living independently in an apartment at a campus that has more care options if she needs them.

It is challenging when you have some professional responsibility around supporting caregiving, and then you’re also navigating it in your own personal life. I never make the assumption that I know exactly what I’m doing or the right way to proceed, but I know a lot about where the resources are and how to navigate. No matter how prepared and knowledgeable you are, when you’re faced with challenges or a crisis, you default to every other family caregiver’s emotions and stress.

For a while, I did the long-distance caregiver thing. I intentionally moved back to St. Paul to be closer to my parents and I have no regrets. I feel really privileged to be a caregiver for my mom. Many in my family look to me for expertise. Having worked in this space, you become an informal caregiver for many friends, colleagues and neighbors.

Q: Can you share an example or two of local communities who have found creative ways to support caregivers?

A: The Wilder Foundation did a “caregiving in context” study in 2010, focused on informal caregiving in the east metro. The research confirmed what we had been seeing: family and friend caregivers don’t go to community-based services. They go to neighbors, family members and faith communities. That evaluation really framed a lot of the work we’ve been doing in the last eight years. One area we continue to work in is building capacity for faith communities. Especially with the older adult demographic right now, they are often still very connected. Knowing that’s likely a place people are going to turn to, how can they be a resource?

We have people working with five churches within a specific faith community. In one, we’re starting a support group, and in another, we’re going in and doing a workshop. We’re really helping them understand the needs of the community and build capacity to respond. That’s what needs to keep happening. The expectation that service providers are the only go-to is unrealistic. We’re really looking at where people are naturally going for support.

In that same vein, we have an online group called Caregiving Now. It’s an intentional space moderated by a volunteer. If a caregiver is up at three in the morning, they have a space to go that’s part of a community. It’s not a real-time discussion, but it’s another place to feel connected.

Over the years, we’ve also partnered with Training to Serve and Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, who support family caregivers within the LGBT community. We’ve been the St. Paul site for that in the last year. It’s an opportunity for us to convene a safe, welcoming event. We don’t want to assume we understand all the needs, but we’re paying attention to what we’re hearing. We’ve been trying to build capacity for them to support the people coming to them for support.

Q: Looking ahead, what can all Minnesotans do to help ensure our growing population of seniors can age gracefully with the support and care that they need?

A: It’s about listening and paying attention. What are the needs and expectations of older adults? We can’t exclude them from these conversations and planning. We need to embrace their energy, wisdom and experience to create community-based services available for future generations.

I like to see it more as an evolution than a dramatic shift in types of services. There’s a space for everybody at the table to talk through what’s best. Our community would benefit from more integration for the individual. As much as we can integrate and create communities across lifespans, we’re better equipped to serve the generations to come. Caring for each other is a part of that circle of life.

We can’t just expect that health care communities and home and community providers are going to meet all needs. Also, we can’t rely on family caregivers to do it alone. Families are getting smaller and living farther apart. To provide the care needed in the years ahead, our communities need to care for each other. We have to figure out how to do that and what the gaps are for additional service providers. Transit, groceries, chores…how can neighborhoods understand who’s living on their block and needs help?

The piece that’s not always recognized is that when you bring multiple generations together to plan, envision and articulate feedback, it can spark life changing friendships. It increases awareness.

One woman I know, her family wanted her to move out of her home to a beautiful apartment. Her concern was what about her neighbors? Her church two blocks away? It was a nice apartment but disconnected to where she called home. To go there, she would be so far removed from what she considered her community. Are we even looking at that as we’re building housing? How can we have innovative models to make that work instead of a relocation strategy?

We focus on what we know, and it’s being willing to listen, hear and understand various aspects of any problem or solution that is vital. We need to do that more. Face Aging MN is doing this, which is awesome!

We need to keep evolving and being innovative. Baby boomers are saying that loud and clear. Yet there is still need for traditional services. How can we create a blend that meets needs today and tomorrow? We all have a vested interest. What do we want? How are we going to get there? It’s inevitable and that’s a wonderful thing.

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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