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It takes a village

Finding a supportive community

At the age of 76, Wellmark member Evelyn Grandganett and her husband Paul made the difficult decision to move east from their rural Wesley, Iowa, home to an assisted living facility named Prairie Place in Mason City. Evelyn’s story is a familiar one for a generation of Americans struggling with the same type of major life decisions. In the case of Prairie Place, 30 different people, all over age 70, descended upon one building, all in a matter of a few months. Not one of them knew of the other. But they have bonded in a small amount of time, despite varied backgrounds and interests.

First on board was Sharon Heimbuch, a retired music teacher from Mason City. She is thoughtful of others and truly enjoys welcoming people, getting to know them, and helping them get connected. She invited all the newcomers to Monday morning coffee each week, as a way to help them get settled.

“There is wrenching fear in moving,” says Sharon. “I wanted people to know they aren’t alone, because often, that’s the only thing that actually helps.”

Sharon has welcomed many people, including Burton Everist and Norma Cook Everist. Married 57 years, they are both retired pastors. Upon moving to Mason City, they would be identified chiefly as “Joel’s parents.” (Their son, Joel, is the director of choral music at the local high school.)

“We felt so welcome upon coming here, in part because we came to coffee once a week,” says Burton.

He took his camera with him and snapped photos of residents, so he could remember their names. Next, he put together a directory to share with everyone. He even published a newsletter for the residents.

“Everyone has different gifts and limitations,” says Sharon. “For example, Evelyn is an excellent baker. I am limited in that capacity,” she jokes. “Burton has a personal desire to know people. Norma is thoughtful and good at encouraging others. Marlys enjoys keeping the outdoor landscaping looking its best. The list goes on.”

As a whole, the people at Prairie Place respect one another’s independence while also keeping an eye on one another and helping each other out.

“I think it’s important to note that just because we are retired doesn’t mean we don’t have lives. In fact, we have vibrant lives,” says Sharon. “We have meetings and appointments. We volunteer and have causes we’re committed to seeing through. We have family, grandkids and great-grandkids, some nearby, some far away.”

“It’s important that we be there for each other without being intrusive. For example, I’ve gotten really good at slipping notes under people’s doors,” she adds. Also, she tends to start most sentences with “If you can,” or ends them with “if it works out for you.” For example, “If you can, here are some things we can do together.”

In addition to Monday coffees, the residents have a standing date for a potluck the third Thursday of every month. “Sometimes everyone is there, sometimes it’s just a handful of us. You always have enough to eat. But most of all, everyone is welcome to attend or welcome to decline,” says Sharon.

Community does not mean everyone is identical

Norma and Burton Everist also have experience with creating community, having spent many years as pastors. Norma spent 38 years as a professor at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, teaching classes about building community.

“One thing I know for sure is that creating community does not mean uniformity or that everyone thinks the same. I like to think of this place as a trustworthy environment to be different together. Also, it is a place to share both joys and sorrows.”

There have been a few deaths, and currently, one couple has been very ill. “We watch out for people who are suffering loss or illness,” says Norma.

“Here, it seems like a culture of caring has been in place since day one,” adds Burton. “I think it would be difficult to move into a place where there was an unhealthy culture, or you might not feel welcome. For that reason, I think it’s important to learn as much as you can about a place before moving.

The benefits of independent living or assisted living

The residents of Prairie Place say there are some significant benefits to living in an independent living or assisted living facility. For example:

  • Neighbors and friends are close by.

    In fact, they are often right across the hall. A few months into her stay in her condo, Norma, who has a neurological disorder, had a health situation. “Burton was gone at the time, says Norma, “But I had six people — right on my floor, who I could call immediately.”

  • No more upkeep.

    No more shoveling snow, raking leaves or mowing the lawn. With time freed up from these types of chores, these is more time to enjoy the outdoors.

  • Sense of learning together.

    You can learn from each other, and learn new things. Together, you can join a computer class, create a book club, study an interesting subject or learn new crafts together.

  • Someone to join you.

    “I have trouble with balance and walking,” says Sharon. “But I love to volunteer. I found someone else down the hall who enjoys volunteering. She can drive, so we go together. You can also find friends to join you for church, lunch, holiday gatherings or doctor’s appointments.

  • Reduces tension in family relationships.

    Rather than worrying about or caring for an aging parent, adult children can have peace of mind knowing their loved one is being cared for, and in some cases, looked after by trained staff, while still providing a sense of independence. 

  • Fights loneliness and isolation.

    By getting to know new people, you can improve the quality of your life and develop meaningful relationships.

For more information about moving to independent or assisted living, visit Caring.com External Site or Whereyoulivematters.org External Site. You can also read more about the people of Prairie Place in our "Leaving behind the family home" series:

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