Community Experience Partnership addresses challenges of retirement

Seventy-five thousand residents of the northeast region of Minnesota will retire within the next five years. Of that vast number of people reaching age 55 and over, "retirement" will mean many different things - travel, hobbies, socialization, le...

Seventy-five thousand residents of the northeast region of Minnesota will retire within the next five years. Of that vast number of people reaching age 55 and over, "retirement" will mean many different things - travel, hobbies, socialization, leisure time and, in many cases, re-employment.

The far-reaching implications as the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age were the subject of a special focus group that met last Thursday at the Fond du Lac Tribal Center. The event was sponsored by the Northland Foundation as part of its "Community Experience Partnership" initiative, geared to bringing community members age 55 and older together to share their views on the opportunities and challenges of remaining actively involved in their community.

Last Thursday's focus group session is part of a regional study being conducted by the Northland Foundation as part of a national movement on community engagement of people age 55 and up. It was facilitated by the Northland Foundation's Lynn Haglin and Zane Bale, with the assistance of Jackie Dionne, Indian Elder Desk Specialist with the Minnesota Board on Aging.

The local session is one of nine slated to be held throughout the northeast region of Minnesota, along with some 120-170 individual interviews that will be conducted as well. It represents the information gathering phase of the three-part study and will be followed by a planning stage in May and a five- to six-year implementation phase.

"We hope to find out more about issues such as the emotions seniors experience following retirement," explained Haglin, "along with whether they plan to continue working or go on to a second career, volunteer, or take part in various life-long learning experiences. We're also interested in knowing what might be some of the barriers to these types of opportunities."


Why return to work?

Haglin started the session by asking the community members in attendance what reasons would cause those people reaching retirement age to consider going back to work.

"I know a man who retired from the National Guard when he was 52," related Fond du Lac elder Patricia Ells. "The first year he traveled and did all of the things he had planned - and then he got bored. Three years ago, he went to work for a Duluth appliance store repairing dryers, and he loves it!"

Elder Shirley Schuck added that sometimes too much sitting around and inactivity can be hard on older people, and the need to be around others motivates them to go back to work.

"Some have to work for the pay," she admitted, "but others do it just to be a part of what's going on and the satisfaction of helping others."

Ells agreed. She said her son retired not long ago and built his dream home in Florida so he could play golf. He soon found out, however, there was something missing.

"You can only play so much golf and take so many trips," Ells said. "Retirement isn't always as beautiful as many think it's going to be, especially if you've been active all your life."

She went on to relate how her son got a job as a driver for STRIDE, transporting the elderly and disabled, and he's happier than he's ever been. She added his wife, also, became a driver, and the two have discovered a new lease on life in their retirement.


Schuck attested that many seniors have to continue working past retirement age, or go back to work, out of financial need and/or the need to continue health insurance coverage. She pointed out that an increasing number of today's grandparents are taking on the role of primary care givers to their grandchildren, and many need a steady flow of income in order to do so. That often means foregoing the gratifying experiences of retirement and working at whatever jobs are available.

"It's true that seniors who have to work out of financial need are a different story," Ells said. "They often have to settle for jobs such as housekeeping or food service - considered entry-level jobs by most young people."

Why volunteer?

All those at the focus group session agreed there is a myriad of opportunities for older people who want to volunteer, and the motivation behind doing so often centers, once again, around the need for social companionship and the need to feel useful. Volunteerism also offers more choice of activities than were available to them before retirement.

What types of barriers do people age 55 and over face in staying active in the community?

Transportation was termed "a huge barrier" by participants in the focus session, especially for those living in rural areas, but even for those living in larger cities such as Duluth. Other barriers that were brought forward were fear of rejection - thinking they don't have anything valuable to offer and failing to realize that the skills they've developed over their lifetime actually qualify as valuable assets, such as leading Boy or Girl Scout groups, crafting, quilting and donating time to the church.

Other factors identified as barriers to ongoing community involvement were: health issues, lack of family support, fear of going out alone, especially at night, depression and the risk of injury (Dionne said seniors in Minnesota have the second-highest rate of falls in the country).

What makes the lives of people 55 and over rewarding?


Schuck, who turned 68 in August, said so far her retirement has been far from sedentary.

"I'm retired - but I don't feel like it!" she said. "Last winter, I was on a trip in the south when the friends I was traveling with made a detour to Mississippi to help with the cleanup there. I'm finding I should have been a carpenter. I've been tearing down walls, mudding, sheet rocking and doing all sorts of other things. I've gotten pretty good at using a sledge hammer!"

Since her retirement, she said she's also gone hot air ballooning, river rafting and dog sledding, and she's now taking swimming lessons with an eye toward eventually going scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef "before global warming takes over!"

Likewise, Ells has found new purpose in retirement, taking on a series of rental properties her husband once managed.

"It's been a whole new lesson in life," she admitted, "and it's been good therapy for me, too."

Schuck said she and Ells, who are sisters, set out goals for each other every week and check them off as they go.

What sort of life-long learning opportunities are open to seniors?

Ells said she's found time in retirement to do some of the things she'd always wanted to do but hadn't had the time or opportunity to do during her working years, such as learning computer skills.


Dionne said she knows of a Native American acquaintance who learned the Ojibwe language after he retired because he had more time to engage in learning after he no longer had to work for a living.

What opportunities would you like to see the community offer for the older population?

Members of the focus group agreed that at least some of the needs of elders could be met by offering low cost transportation so they can access places of work, socialization, volunteerism, and exercise. Another suggestion was have more care givers and public health nurses actually going out into the homes of seniors to provide therapy and other basic forms of necessary care to keep them mobile. More widely offered defensive driving courses was another suggestion to keep older people safer and more active. A further suggestion was to offer community gardens, perhaps followed up at the end of the season with a farmer's market and/or canning classes so people can process their own fruits and vegetables.

One program already being offered that has met with considerable success is "Wisdom Steps," the first preventative health program on Minnesota's reservations. All bands in the state participate and partner with the Minnesota Board on Aging to conduct the program, which emphasizes healthy eating, exercise, medical training, socialization, veterans benefits and ongoing rewards for walking and equivalent "steps" taken during other forms of physical training.

The results of this and other area focus groups, along with the data gathered through the personal interviews with stakeholders, will be utilized as part of a community planning effort to identify needs or problems and develop innovative and sustainable solutions utilizing people age 55 and over as key resources. Following will be a multi-year effort to implement, evaluate and disseminate the findings of the study.

Pine Journal Publisher/reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: .

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