If you wander the halls of Buffalo Hill Terrace or the Immanuel Skilled Care Center on an ordinary day, you’ll notice that many residents are visiting with family members, friends, and other loved ones.  Just over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through our community and the world, requiring Immanuel Lutheran Communities to close to visitors.  This meant that our residents were unable to visit with those who do not live within our walls. 

We know that socialization with friends and family is critical to resident well-being, so our teams immediately started working on ways to help residents see those they love.  We started by expanding our remote visitation options by purchasing iPads, acquiring additional iN2L (It’s Never Too Late) computer systems, and making preparations to install a connected theater system in the Skilled Care Center.  This worked well, and residents embraced the technology.

However, nothing can replace in-person visitation.  So, we started thinking about ways to make it possible for residents and their loved ones to see each other safely.  Our first step was to install an outdoor visitation area at Buffalo Hill Terrace.  We added a glass barrier to an existing patio, creating a place where independent and assisted living residents could visit with friends and family.  Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to add a retractable awning to keep the sun and rain off of residents during visits.

This outdoor space worked beautifully in the summer, but it was only for Buffalo Hill Terrace residents, and as temperatures cooled, it wasn’t quite as pleasant to use as it was initially. So, with the help of grants from the state and more generosity from our community of donors, we installed glass-walled visiting spaces at both the Immanuel Skilled Care Center and Buffalo Hill Terrace.  To make these spaces even more functional, they include wireless adaptive communication systems with headphones that allow users to adjust the volume and hear each other more clearly.

We’re open to visitors again, now, and residents can once again host those they love in their apartments or rooms.  Still, we are happy to have these new, permanent visitation spaces.  When future epidemics (like the flu) require us to close to visitors, residents will still be able to visit with those they love most while staying safe from infection.  Your gifts to this project will thus continue to improve the resident experience long into the future.

In 2019, thanks to a grant from the William and Blanche Hetzel Foundation, the Immanuel Foundation was able to help Immanuel Lutheran Communities acquire its first iN2L (It’s Never Too Late) system for our residents with dementia.  This system provides stimulation, entertainment, and remote communication with family members. 

Designed especially for seniors with dementia, the iN2L includes a large touch screen as well as a webcam and other connectivity features.  Each resident has a personalized profile from which they can navigate to the games and experiences they most enjoy.  For example, one resident loves to play the “bubble popping” game, in which she tracks bubbles that appear on screen and then pops them.  In addition to providing entertainment, this game also provides offers mental stimulation and the ability to practice hand-eye coordination.  Some residents enjoy just watching others play the bubble popping game and cheering them on.  In these ways, the iN2L plays a therapeutic and social role in the residents’ experience.

Our first iN2L has been in use in the Lodge at Buffalo Hill for about two years.  Recently, thanks to state grants and individual donations, we’ve been able to add two new units in the Immanuel Skilled Care Center.  This means that residents who require skilled nursing care—many of whom are low-income—now also have access to this technology.  They can play games, revisit old haunts via Google street view, and visit remotely with their families via Skype.

In fact, the iN2L systems have been a particular boon during the coronavirus crisis.  All of Immanuel Lutheran Communities was closed to visitors from mid-March 2020 until March 2021.  Residents could not see their loved ones in-person for much of this time, and when they were able to meet, they had glass barriers between them.  The iN2L provided an easy, familiar way for residents to communicate remotely with their family members.  Staff can preload family contact info into a resident’s profile, and during calls, residents can see their loved ones on the screen.  Staff have noted that the iN2L “takes technology out of” video calling, making this vital contact easier for both staff and residents.

Thank you so much to all the donors who helped us add this technology to our community!  Our residents love using it, and it has made a meaningful difference in their lives.

Wow!  It has been a year since life at Immanuel Lutheran Communities—as in the rest of the world—changed due to COVID-19.  Our community has faced some challenges, including illness among our residents and staff members, but we have faced these challenges together and with the support of our wonderful community of donors.  As we begin to reopen parts of our campus and look toward the future, we would like to take a moment to thank all of the people who helped our residents and staff adapt to life in the pandemic.

First of all, we have benefited from the sewing skills of over 170 volunteers in the Flathead Valley and beyond.  Last spring, when critical PPE like masks and medical gowns suddenly became both more necessary and harder to find than ever before, we issued a call for help.  Our community responded with energy and generosity and in the past year these individuals have sewn over 1700 gowns and 1500 masks.  We would like to expend special thanks to Cindy Riebe and Charline Payne, who organized these efforts and helped make sure our volunteers had the resources they needed.  These volunteers’ dedication made an enormous difference in our ability to meet our PPE needs.

We are also grateful to all the donors who helped our residents stay remotely connected to their loved ones while we were closed to visitors due to the pandemic.  Thanks to your generosity and grants from the state of Montana and several foundations, we were able to purchase several iPads, two additional iN2L (It’s Never Too Late) systems, and a connected theater system that will soon be installed in the Immanuel Skilled Care Center. 

Taken together, these technologies provide residents with a range of options for communicating electronically with their loved ones.  They can communicate via FaceTime in their rooms on an iPad or see a somewhat bigger screen on the mobile iN2L—a touchscreen the size of a small television.  In coming months, they’ll have the opportunity to see their loved ones life-sized using the Connected Theater System.  If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that seniors are willing to embrace technology.  Many residents have enjoyed these systems so much that they continue to use them even though they can now see visitors in person.

These are only two of the many projects our donors and volunteers have assisted with during this challenging time.  Donor funds have also helped with projects ranging from infection control to building upgrades to support operational changes.  We are so thankful for everything you’ve done in this past year and continue to do.  You truly make a difference in the lives of Flathead Valley seniors.

A few weeks ago, I talked about the Immanuel Spirit, the set of guidelines we all try to live and work by here at Immanuel.  Today, I want to take a deeper dive into one of these guidelines.  It’s the first on the list, and one of the most challenging to abide by: “Embrace and value our differences, while assuming positive intentions.”

There’s a lot packed in to these two clauses.  In the first one, we agree not only recognize the differences between ourselves and others but also to embrace and value them.  It can be very difficult to genuinely embrace the differences between ourselves and others; after all, most of us approach things the way we do because those ways make sense to us.  When someone approaches something from a different angle, it’s easy to see their way as wrong.  When we embrace and value our differences, however, we recognize that it can sometimes be helpful to take into account multiple points of view.

The second part of this statement can be even more difficult to live by.  When we “assume positive intentions,” we approach interactions with the assumption that the other person wants a good outcome, just as we do.  When we disagree with the people around us, we do our best to assume that they (like us) want the best for the team, the residents, and the organization.

When we feel passionately about our work, it can be hard to adhere to this guideline (because most of us have good reasons for how we approach things!), but when we do, our work lives are generally more pleasant and productive.  Most of the time people genuinely are coming from a positive place, so even when we at first don’t agree, we can trust that we all have the same end goals.  The residents really do come first here at Immanuel.

When we embrace and value our differences while assuming positive attentions, we find compromise solutions when we disagree about the best way to approach a problem.  We also have better working relationships because we’re not focused on being right all the time.  It’s often hard to do, but it’s almost always worth it!

If you’re ever at Buffalo Terrace and looking for Marvin Schultz, you can often find him in the Patio Room or Wooden Nickel playing games with his friends.  Marvin has long enjoyed games of all kinds.  I know this first-hand because I’ve known him all my life—he’s my Grandpa.

Marvin moved in to Buffalo Hill Terrace almost two years ago.  As soon as he moved in, he found a group of friends with whom he regularly plays his favorite card game, Hand and Foot.  And if you walk in the North Entrance and see a group of people playing a dice game called Farkle in the Café, that’s probably our family.  Marvin can and will play almost any game—board games, card games, dice games, games of chance, games of strategy—that others want to play.  No matter whom he’s playing with, he takes a relaxed approach.  “To me games should be fun and relaxing,” he comments.  “If you get all uptight about losing, don’t play.”

Family has always been central to Marvin’s love of games.  When he was growing up, he played games with his mother, Hilda, and his whole family of four would play canasta at Christmas time. His Passions Project photo shows him playing chess, one of his favorites.  His older brother, Merlyn, taught him to play the game and was his most common opponent when they were growing up.    Eventually, Marvin got good enough that he could beat Merlyn at a game or two, but it didn’t happen often!

That was okay, though, because winning has never been what Marvin likes most about playing chess.  He enjoys formulating a strategy, including a plan of attack and a defense at the same time.  He doesn’t memorize move sequences the way some players do.  Instead, he takes it one move a time—and one game at a time.  “Every game’s different to me,” he says. “It depends on what your opponent does.”

Marvin was born in Wisconsin and, when he was growing up, his family lived in a variety of states including New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Texas.  After graduating with his engineering degree, Marvin took a job at Boeing and moved to Wichita, Kansas.  He soon met Shirley, the love of his life.  The couple dated for one summer.  Then, Shirley went back to college.  While she was away, he wrote her one letter.  It must have been a good letter, because they became engaged almost as soon as she came back to Wichita the next summer and married that August.  They went on to have six children (one passed away as a young child), three of whom now live in Northwest Montana.

Marvin moved to Kalispell in 2013 to live with his second daughter, Carla (I call her Mom).  In 2017, he moved into Buffalo Hill Terrace.  He loves living here, where he has a lot of friends and game-playing buddies.  And next week, his two children who don’t live nearby will be coming to visit along with their spouses and some of their kids (Marvin’s grandkids, my cousins).  I know he’s looking forward to it, and I’m sure we’ll be playing some games! 

When prospective residents or other newcomers visit Immanuel, they often remark on what a positive environment they find.  Many of them have remarked that “it just feels different” from other communities or workplaces.  That difference usually has to do with the way staff members interact with each other and with residents.  People say to hi to each other in the halls, often calling each other by name and sometimes stopping for a brief exchange about how the day is going.  Residents gather in the Patio Room for coffee and games or just for a chat before dinner.  Floor staff are busy, but they always appear to enjoy each other’s company when they’re working in teams, and they take the time to greet passersby.

At Immanuel, we emphasize “community,” and that’s part of what creates this atmosphere.  But we also strive every day to live and work the values described in the Immanuel Spirit.  The Immanuel Spirit was developed by leadership several years ago to structure the culture we want to create here at Immanuel.  For example, the Immanuel Spirit reminds us to “Greet everyone warmly, by name, and with a smile” and to “Contribute to an atmosphere of positivity, teamwork, and cultural support.”  It’s these values that are reflected in the exchanges visitors notice.

But these values aren’t just for show.  They shine through in other areas, as well.  For example, recently our culinary team was preparing a meal from a specific ethnic tradition for some visiting VIPs.  A housekeeper with experience preparing this kind of ethnic cuisine happened to wander through the kitchen.  She noticed that something wasn’t quite right, and she jumped in to help.  A little bit later, she returned to the kitchen when her assistance was requested.  This housekeeper isn’t on the culinary team, of course, and she still had housekeeping work to finish, but because teamwork is so important at Immanuel, she stopped what she was doing to make sure that a big event turned out as well as it possibly could.  She saw a problem she could help solve and jumped in—incidentally, another of the Immanuel Spirit commitments is “Respond to every problem I see.”

It’s not always easy to honor all fifteen points of the Immanuel Spirit, but when we keep them in mind, we create a culture that is welcoming and special.  We strive to work as a team across departments, and when we do, residents and guests notice.

At the Immanuel Foundation, we are privileged to work with a wonderful Resident Advisory Committee.  This group, composed of five active, engaged residents of Buffalo Hill Terrace and The Villas, gives us their input on our fundraising strategies and priorities.  They know the “buzz” around the community, and they’re willing to share it.  Since we fundraise for the community, it’s important to us that we understand residents’ priorities.  Our committee members share information about what residents are thinking and what’s important to them, and they’re great ambassadors for the work we do in the Foundation.

Our committee members are also great at helping out with practical tasks.  They’ve helped us stuff mailings, prepare for events, staff tables, and of course they were a huge help at our Estate Sale last May.  They’ve become an integral part of the Immanuel Foundation, and at this point we probably couldn’t do the work we do without them.

Our committee is not the only one at Immanuel.  The Foundation committee is part of a larger system at Buffalo Hill Terrace and the Villas that engages residents with operations.  After all, this community is their home, so they should have a voice in how things are run.  To help make their voices heard, the Buffalo Hill Terrace administration established committees for dining, recreation, finance, and the physical building.  There’s also a group of Resident Ambassadors that helps show new residents around, provides tours for prospective residents, and makes their apartment homes available for viewing.  Representatives from all of these individual committees, as well as the Foundation Committee, come together monthly to share updates and help Carla Wilton, the Buffalo Hill Terrace Executive Director, make decisions that impact residents.

These committees are great for everybody.  They’re great for staff because we get direct impact from residents.  They’re great for residents because they have a voice in how the organization runs.  And they’re great for the organization as a whole because we can be sure we’re responding to the people for whom we exist in the first place.

Like all retirement communities, Buffalo Hill Terrace has a wealth of experience and expertise within its walls.  These committees also give the residents a chance to go on using their talents and skills in a way that benefits their community.  They are retired, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their skills or their interests.  So, residents with finance backgrounds join the finance committee, those with a background or particular interest in food service join the dining committee, etc.  In the Foundation, we benefit from residents on our committee with long histories of volunteering and board service for a wide variety of organizations.

By participating in the governance and oversight of the organization, residents remain engaged with their community and their world.  And Immanuel finds ways to provide even better service that’s tailored to the particular group of people who live here.  Thank you so much to all of the residents who offer their time on the committees—you help keep the community great!

On the door of Shirley Pryor’s room at the Immanuel Skilled Care Center hangs a sign informing visitors that the occupant is an artist.  As soon as you open and step through that door, you see why.  Shirley’s walls hold several of her works, and their variety, skill, and beauty is evident.

Shirley has been an artist for most of her life.  “I just always liked to draw,” she said when we interviewed her before her Passions Project photo session.  This love of drawing grew into a passion for painting as she grew older.  The artwork in her room includes both oils and pastels, and she’s painted in watercolor, as well.  Oils are her favorite, though, because of their vibrant colors and their texture.

Shirley was fortunate in that she was able to support herself and her three children with her art.  She sold dozens of paintings over the course of her working life and, while she taught occasionally, most of her income came from selling her artwork. 

Unfortunately, Shirley is no longer able to paint.  She still enjoys looking around at all the art hanging on her walls, most of which is her own.  Her family, which now includes over a dozen grandchildren and several great-grandchildren as well as her two daughters, one son, and their spouses, also have and enjoy some of her remaining paintings.  Her youngest daughter lives locally, and Shirley feels lucky to get to spend a lot of time with her.

Shirley has painted everything from garden scenes to wildlife.  Her favorite painting she’s ever done is a full-length portrait of her daughter.  It was challenging, she says, but totally worth it.  And it’s not the only large painting she’s completed; once, when she was living in Arizona, she painted a large mural in a public space.  The painting of irises she’s pictured with here is Shirley’s favorite of the pictures she has left.  She’s certainly able to capture the beauty in what she sees!

On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the United States’ declaration of independence from Great Britain.  Independence is a trait we as Americans continue to value in ourselves, both as individuals and as a nation.

In fact, the possibility of losing independence is one the main reasons why many Americans fear aging.  And as we get older, we’re more likely to be confronted with the possibility that we won’t always be independent.  A 2017 study presented at the Innovations in Aging conference found that a fear of dependency—that is, a fear of being unable to take care of one’s self—was a strong predictor of depression in American older adults.  Even when other factors like the subjects’ health, age, and disability were taken into account, older adults who were afraid of being dependent on others were more likely to be depressed than those who didn’t share this fear.

This is particularly worrying because, whether we like it or not, aging often means we lose some measure of independence.  In fact, some seniors move into communities like Immanuel because they know they can no longer live on their own, whether because of health problems or difficulty with the daily tasks of home maintenance.  Immanuel offers a whole spectrum of services, from Assisted Living to Skilled Nursing, for seniors needing various levels of help with activities of daily living.  While it’s part of Immanuel’s philosophy to respect residents’ choices, it’s hard to deny that some residents are here precisely because they can’t live independently.

So how do we help seniors avoid the depression that seems to come with dependency in aging?  First, we can remember that aging is something that happens to all of us (if we’re lucky).  It’s not shameful.  The physical changes that inevitably accompany aging are part of the package.  They’re often unpleasant, but they’re not shameful, either.  Aging just is, and all of us, at all ages, should work on remembering and respecting that.  It won’t stop dependency, but it can go a long way toward mitigating depression.

Second, we can look for tradeoffs and ways that accepting help in some areas can help seniors maintain some forms of independence.  For example, a senior who has some mobility problems can go more places for longer if she uses a walker than if she resists it.  Or, seniors who move in to communities like Buffalo Hill Terrace often find that they go out more because they have someone else to drive them and friends to accompany them.  They’re not getting out independently, but they’re not remaining isolated, either.  By depending on others (or on devices) for some things, seniors can often continue to do the things that matter most to them.

As we celebrate American independence, let’s make sure we remember the many forms it can take.  And let’s also remember that none of us lives completely independently.  It seems almost cliché to invoke English poet John Donne’s “Meditation 17” here, but I’m going to do it anyway.  When Donne wrote his famous lines “No man is an island,/entire of itself;/every man is a piece of the continent,/a part of the main” in the winter of 1623, he was seriously ill.  The poem reflects on the interconnectedness of communities and the loss a community feels when one member passes away.  This interconnectedness means that it’s okay for us to need each other, as Donne surely needed his friends and neighbors when he was sick.  All of us will need more help as we age, and that’s okay.  We can depend on others without losing ourselves.