Vital Aging Network

Report date
March 2016

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Building strong leadership teams in the Wellness 50+ pilots. Our self-directed teams of older adults are committed to the work and to each other, hold themselves accountable and work hard to achieve their shared vision.Tools such as StrengthsFinders 2.0, team norms, rotating roles and shared ownership have helped to create a culture of trust and to make the teams resilient. Each team has a high level of pride in the work they are doing. The program’s design ensures that the teams have strategies for continually adding new members. Working through that process from year 1 to year 2, helped us understand that it is essential to integrate new members into the team from the start and not to separate them for training purposes. We have also learned that as community-based groups, having fun and engaging at a social level is essential, both to build team cohesion and to model the social capital that they hope to engender in the broader community. While the teams have formed and made substantial progress, it is also clear that developing relationships and a committed team that can successfully advance the wellness goals requires a substantial time, mutual understanding and commitment.
Frequently revisiting goals and being sure everyone—team members and program participants—is in alignment. At the outset of the program, Wellness 50+ carefully selected its goals to reach a broad cross-section of the community, to make measurable behavior change, to strengthen leadership for wellness and to make the work sustainable. We believe that all four goals are essential for long-term success. It is easy for team dynamics to pull the focus into one or more of the goals at the expense of the others. For example, several teams started by planning and implementing events and put little emphasis on creating methods to achieve measurable behavior change. Without measureable change, their efforts will soon feel futile—both to team members and the community. By keeping the importance of all four goals in front of the teams and providing additional resources for how they can achieve the goals, we have been able to make significant progress. The Oakdale team’s walking challenge is an example of how one team is approaching measuring change. They have partnered with the Oakdale Discovery Center staff, which will register participants, log miles and provide a gift card after walks.
Regularly examining what’s working and what’s not working to make improvement in the next iteration of the work. Community members drive the Wellness 50+ pilots and, as a result, there is no overall blueprint for teams to follow. Freedom to take their initiative in the direction that fits their community has lead to wonderful creativity but also at times angst as they find their original approach ineffective. To ensure that they are achieving their goals, teams have incorporated processes for reflection and modifying their direction based on what they are learning. The teams do so by evaluating their progress each step of the way. For example, after the Alexandria team completed a twelve-week physical activity project their evaluation, including feedback from participants, pointed to several changes that they will implement in the next round of the project. Changes include pairing people as buddies, partnering with Alexandria Technical & Community College to offer a physical activity class during the 12-week project, and providing activities at various times of the day and week.

Key lessons learned

Recruiting team members and community participants is essential and challenging. When team members talk with people one-on-one, most resonate with the goals of Wellness 50+. Yet, recruiting new team members requires substantial time. One team member noted, “many in the population we are targeting are still working, semi-retired or members of the ‘sandwich generation’.” None of the Wellness 50+ teams have as many members as was originally planned for the initiative and recruiting additional members remains an issue. Engaging individuals to participate in the activities of the wellness initiatives can also be challenging. It requires an additional set of skills and actions, including effective communications and marketing materials (which VAN has added to its support), relationships with partners who can help disseminate information and a salient argument for the value of being involved for the individual and for their community. Teams also need to provide concrete ways for people to get involved, identify themselves as part of the “movement” and stay involved.
The dual focus of building a movement and making measurable behavior change sometimes seem like conflicting aims, yet we need to do both. Building a movement or a culture of wellness is about getting the word out, building social capital and creating excitement. Making measurable behavior change is directed, specific and detail oriented. It can feel structured and even be off-putting to some. Yet without measureable change, the movement will fall flat lacking legitimacy. Finding the right balance between the exhilaration of building the movement and the sense of true accomplishment that comes through measurement is an ongoing effort for the teams.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Collaboration. Each of our pilot communities has tremendous assets (individuals, associations, organizations) and the Wellness 50+ teams have been very successful in engaging a broad range of these assets in their efforts. Input and feedback from community members has been invaluable in guiding the teams. A collaborative approach allows the teams to achieve much more than they could otherwise. As the teams incorporate the strengths of partnering individuals and groups, their ideas become richer, their reach deeper and their sustainability enhanced. Teams are collaborating with community leaders and ordinary people, fitness organizations, senior centers, community education, housing organizations, healthcare centers, educational institutions, social services organizations and more. Partners help the Wellness teams by providing 1) support in promoting the mission and projects; 2) expertise; 3) space and logistical support for projects and events; 4) training; 5) financial support; and 6) access to additional networks. Each community has successfully raised money to support local efforts.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

Flexibility has been a hallmark of Wellness 50+ and it allows the teams to be nimble, taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. The wellness teams have been fearless in their willingness to jump in and try things without a need to do them perfectly. This has given them an opportunity to push forward with new opportunities, making modifications as needed. For example, shortly before the Phillips community was ready to start providing cooking demonstrations to community members they were introduced to a Hennepin County Extension nutrition educator who presented them with an optional approach. They changed course and the series, led by Joyce McGee-Brown, was a big success. A second series, titled Munchies, Music & Movement, is starting March 4 in partnership with Ebenezer. As a support organization, VAN has also learned to be flexible and responsive to the Wellness teams, working to address changing needs. In November 2016, VAN produced a revised Community Training Guide, completely revamping the guide’s structure and incorporating new materials that have been developed from what we are learning in the pilots.

Understanding the problem

Our work has only reinforced our belief in the importance of and viability of engaging older adults in their own self-care and supporting others in improving wellness. We have seen a hunger in participants for healthier lives and stronger social connections. This type of grassroots organizing in communities is hard work and our team members continue to face barriers. Yet, their enthusiasm is high and the successes that we have seen so far make us optimistic. We know it is possible, desirable and worth the effort, and we believe that we have the right elements in place in order to be successful.

If you could do it all over again...

Strengthen the “backbone support” provided by the Vital Aging Network and other supporting organizations to help the teams have the tools and resources they need to be successful. VAN’s intent to allow the teams to be self-directed and to not get in their way has sometimes led the teams to feel a lack of the leadership, tools and/or resources they needed to move forward with confidence. VAN has already modified what it provides to some degree in response to that need. Ideally VAN and its partners would provide these supports:
• Guiding shared vision among Wellness team members, VAN and partners
• Providing training, processes and resources for effective community action
• Convening team members for “community of learning”
• Marketing support (logos, brochure templates, graphics, press releases)
• Website (with possibility of local pages)
• Creating evaluation process
• Processes for collecting, collating and analyzing data
• Creating and distributing program updates with community specific information
• Building and maintaining connection with policymakers to support community wellness
• Maintaining funding levels at program level
• Supporting community-level fundraising

One last thought

We appreciate the Bush Foundation’s support of grassroots efforts. People in communities have tremendous potential to make real change that is measurable and sustainable. The health and well-being of our communities is at stake and through your support we believe we are making a difference.