Vital Aging Network

Report date
February 2015

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Communications within and between the teams in various stages of development allowed us to understand what was working and what was not working. We were able to make course corrections to the implementation based on what we were learning. Facilitators from the initial two teams suggested changes in the Evolve curriculum including starting work on the quick-win project right away rather than with a more abstract exploration of leadership. We made significant changes to the curriculum based on that and other recommendations. In November 2014 we held a gathering of team members from all four pilot communities. This gathering was instrumental in helping team members see their role as part of a bigger movement. Comments included: “This was an exception day for me. I can see the broad impact that we can have as a group.” “It was important for me to hear what teams are doing in other communities. It has stretched my imagination of what is possible in our community.” As a result of the meeting, the Vital Aging Network set up a Facebook page ( for the groups to share insights and is looking into scheduling a second gathering in summer 2015.
Doing a quick-win project early in the work gave team members a hands-on experience of working together and producing outcomes. The experience helped members gel as a team and put team members in contact with other community members, making their work more real. When the quick-win provided measureable change (in two of the communities it did not), it deepened the team members’ commitments and fostered positive feedback from participants. For example, in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, the team established a walking club in a Section 8 high-rise for seniors (in which three of the seven team members live). The team worked together to structure the initiative and gather the pedometers and other materials needed. Preparing for the kick-off session required the team to clearly state what they hope to achieve. It required them to recruit individuals to the effort and support participants as they worked to increase the number of steps they take each week. They successfully recruited 32 individuals to participate in the program and when they came back for a check in at the two week point everyone enthusiastically said they wanted to continue for two more weeks.
Using a consistent project planning process ensures that the teams use critical thinking as they move forward in their project, and that the team is in agreement about goals, objectives, roles, timelines and evaluation. The planning process we use in Wellness 50+ is complete but relatively simple. Each of the teams has been successful in using the project planning process in their efforts and we believe that over the three-year pilot as each cohort learns the same process that it will create a strong basis for ongoing success.

Key lessons learned

The Wellness 50+ teams need both structure/limitations and flexibility. We now believe that, if anything, we erred on the side of allowing too much flexibility in the first year. We focused on the concept of “self-directed” teams and, in doing so, we did not provide enough structure for the teams to move forward in a timely manner and be successful. An example is having teams with less than six members go forward (at the teams’ requests). This left those teams under-resources and therefore unable to adequately perform the required tasks. We also made assumptions early in the program that facilitators and participants clearly understood the mission, goals and objectives of Wellness 50+. We learned that it is critical to repeatedly review key components to assure everyone is on the same page and not taking the pilots off course. We continue to find our way in balancing process with innovation. If we allow the teams too much freedom they can get lost. Too much control limits creativity.
Recruiting members to the Wellness 50+ teams requires “retail organizing”—one-on-one meetings with community leaders and other stakeholders who can put us in touch with individuals that might be interested. This is a fairly labor intensive process, particularly early in pilots when communities have not yet generated a solid network of connections. The Vital Aging Network has not explicitly included skills that would support this recruiting in the leadership curriculum and we pla to do that in the future. We have also learned that larger teams—at least six or seven people—work better. We have now adapted a policy of having at least 6 individuals on the team before we will kick off a cohort. In the Hamline Midway pilot we will kick off the second cohort in March 2015 rather than November 2014 because recruiting lagged.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Collaborative. The Wellness 50+ pilots are built on the concept of collaboration. As the team members in a community first come together to start the initiative, they work collaboratively to create a functional team and launch quick-win and broader impact wellness initiatives. As they reach out into their community, they engage people in sharing in the ownership and benefiting from the results. In the long run, the success of the pilots will hinge to a large degree upon how well they can engage the broader community in what they acknowledge is a shared-power world. For example, after completing their quick-win project the Wellness 50+ team in Oakdale, invited individual older adults and community leaders together. About 30 people participated, including the director of the Washington County Department of Health, the mayor of Oakdale and many others. The purpose was to inform the participants about the Wellness 50+ initiative solicit their input and ask for their support. The energy in the room was electric and many made positive comments on the process used. In addition, people identified the existing assets in the community and many organizations, including the mayor, stepped up

Other key elements of Community Innovation

We believe that developing leadership is a crucial element of success in citizen-led community innovation. With the decline of traditional civic groups that once were abundant in communities, many people do not have basic skills needed to lead change. Even those who have strong organizational leadership skills often have a hard time transferring those skills into a community setting. Building capacity in elements of community leadership such as developing a shared vision and strategy, working collaboratively, engaging others and building trust is proving to be valuable to Wellness 50+ team members. In addition, we have found team-building efforts to be essential to success.

Understanding the problem

Our work has reinforced our understanding of the need for and efficacy of community support in making behavior change. Sometimes just a little community goes a long way. For example, after a two-hour session that included a fitness assessment and training on how to improve fitness, Dale Thompson a Wellness 50+ Oakdale team member and resident in the participating housing cooperative described the impact:
“Groups have formed to walk together. It has become more difficult to scheduling time in the exercise room as more people are using the facility. I have witnessed folks instructing one another on new machines or exercises. People move around the building more briskly and I am aware of one person that no longer feels the need to carry a cane for safety. Diet has now become a topic at the daily 4:00 PM happy hour—something I never heard before. A building walker-friendly tour was conducted to make sure there were no impediments or risks for walkers and, as a result, some changes were made in our underground car-wash area and in some furnishings in the hobby and craft rooms.”

If you could do it all over again...

More intensive training of the community facilitators and stronger oversight to ensure that teams are in alignment around the program’s goals. While everyone in the Wellness 50+ program is committed to improving wellness among people 50+, there are many routes to getting to that outcome. As we work towards creating a model that is both effective and replicable, it is important that each of the pilots take the same basic pathway. To achieve that goal we need to clarify communications, be open to making modification where needed and check and re-check understandings about the effort at each juncture. We believe that adding additional training time for facilitators would add to our ability to be successful.

One last thought

We are gratified by the commitment and energy of the Wellness 50+ team members, across the board. Even if their team was small, team members did not have as much time to commit to the effort as they wished or their results were less than they hoped for, each team member, to a person, is committed to continuing to build the wellness effort in their community. This has reinforced our belief that recruiting talented and engaged people aged 50+ and providing an environment where they can learn together and access tools that help them be successful is a viable recipe for establishing ongoing community initiatives. While we are still early in our Wellness 50+ program, in each of our pilot communities team members have a strong sense of ownership and commitment to achieving increased wellness among older adults in their communities.