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‘We’re about helping people’

As retirees continue to settle in remote locations, they find growing support from their communities

REPUBLIC, Wash. – The power of a tiny rural town is that a spark of an idea can ignite into a large triumph in just a few weeks, without much fuss or formality.

That’s what happened in Republic, where dwindling membership at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer jeopardized the historic building. Volunteer Nancy Morris hatched a plan to turn the hand-cut stone building into a senior center.

Within a couple months, it was.

That’s just one significant example in this poor, remote area where people do many small things on a daily basis to help their neighbors. Restaurant owners and mail carriers notice if someone doesn’t show up for coffee klatch or hasn’t gotten their mail. People plow each other’s roads or share tomatoes. Someone is always giving someone else a ride.

If not for the senior center, many retirees wouldn’t socialize.

“I’d probably go home and read another book,” said Pat Reagan, a Spokane school teacher who retired in Republic. The hospital has a senior lunch on Thursdays. Now Reagan and her friends extend their outing and play cards.

Today, the average life expectancy is at an all-time high of 78.8 years. About 30 years ago, a major shift in the theory of aging in America occurred at the same time life expectancy grew. Researchers and health care workers realized seniors thrive at home, and it’s less expensive to keep them home than in a nursing home.

“There’s a switch in philosophy,” said Jeff Michaelson, the senior program manager for Rural Resources Community Action, based in Colville. The nonprofit agency assisted 14,000 people in Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties last year, focusing on the elderly and disabled. These large, remote counties are the poorest in the state and have a growing population of elderly.

“Many seniors think that if they fall down and break a hip, I’m going to have to go into a nursing home (in town),” Michaelson said. “They are very fearful of that.”

That’s one fear that Rural Resources tries to alleviate, and the work is obvious in Republic, where Cherie Gorton manages the office and spends her days – and often her personal time – connecting the aging and disabled with resources, whether it’s a meal and friendly conversation or linking people with a case manager to develop care plans. Recently, she’s been helping Morris launch the senior center.

“Sometimes I have to fill up my Subaru with frozen meals,” Gorton said, while helping unload the monthly delivery of commodity food. “There’s a real problem in rural America with delivery.”

Like most rural Westerners, Gorton – who landed in Republic in 1978 when her VW van broke down – improvises and gets the job done. Some days she works for the eye clinic across the hall from her Rural Resources office. She uses that interaction with people to make sure they are aware of local services. Gorton calls herself the “walking chamber of commerce.”

“We just make things work,” Gorton said. “We’re about helping people.”

Elaine McPherson, 90, is one of the people Rural Resources helped keep at home after she broke her hip and fractured her pelvis. Gorton frequently walks a few blocks down the hill to visit McPherson in her small rental, especially since McPherson got out of the local hospital.

Complicating matters is that home health services aren’t available in Republic. So for people like McPherson, that sense of looking out for each other is important.

“There’s one thing about Republic,” said McPherson, who welded in the Seattle-area ship yards during World War II. “Everyone always knows I’m here.”

Soon the conversation turns to an apartment opening in her building that once was a storage garage. Gorton quickly makes a call and recommends a new tenant.

By the time Gorton returns to her office, the housing manager is dropping off an application

“I call her the little buzz-bomb,” McPherson said of Gorton. “Nobody can keep up with her. She runs around and helps all the retired people.”

On the outside, Republic, population 1,083, looks like a frontier town that plays up its rustic charm to tourists, who come to fish, boat and camp on the area’s many lakes or look for 48-million-year-old fossils at the Stonerose fossil beds. The county has only one hospital; it’s classified as “frontier” and it struggles to attract and retain medical providers. There is a small nursing home within the hospital and a small assisted living facility. There is no mall, much less a Starbucks or a gated retirement community or golf course.

Yet Ferry County is a retirement hub, gaining population – mostly people 55 and older. Already 21 percent of the county’s population is older than 65. It’s predicted that within 10 years, the median age will shift to 60 from the current 49, according to the Ferry County Public Hospital District. With more seniors moving in, the district is working to increase its geriatric services, especially for Alzheimer’s and dementia care.

This rural population increase follows a national trend of baby boomers searching for scenic and recreational amenities, isolation and lower housing costs, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Areas that once were recreation destinations are becoming popular as permanent residences, the report said.

Republic’s retirees chose this remote location despite fewer services and longer drives to medical specialists.

Older adults who report that they are “strongly attached” to their communities are more likely satisfied with life and have a strong sense of self-control, according to AARP Research for its Beyond 50.05 Study on Livable Communities.

Morris, whose parents moved to Republic when she was 4, left after school and didn’t return for years, until she married the local car dealer. Today she feels more rooted in the community than ever.

Morris and her husband, Art, are two of the 10 remaining members of the Episcopal church. As in many rural areas, the congregation is dwindling to where weekly services are no longer realistic except when the rare traveling preacher comes to town. The only way to keep the building viable was to find a new use. Morris took her idea of creating a senior center to the regional bishop.

The Episcopal Diocese of Spokane Foundation awarded a $500 poverty grant to spruce up the basement.

Art Morris and a friend fixed the bathroom and washed the walls. Then another grant paid the first six months of utility bills. The Empire Health Foundation donated money to fix the makeshift parking lot and coordinate with the Rural Resources bus.

Morris shrugs off the ease. That’s how things work in small towns.

“They sure saw a need here,” said Steve Dodds, the new executive director of diocese foundation. “This gives the building a use that continues to have value.”

This was Dodds’ first trip to Republic, a special guest at the senior center’s grand opening ceremony in May.

“It’s just wonderful to see this happening,” Morris said one Tuesday as the senior center filled for yoga.

The senior center wasn’t Nancy Morris’ first idea benefiting seniors. About eight years ago, she realized many elderly shut-ins weren’t getting fresh fruit and vegetables. The food bank didn’t have refrigeration. So she started baking bread and raising money to buy greens from warehouses. The Morrises and volunteers would take the fresh food boxes, which included a homemade card, every month.

The experience made her realize the importance of social connection for seniors.

Perhaps that was the foundation for her senior center revelation.

“People come here from the coast to retire because our crime rate is itsy bitsy,” Morris said. “It’s such a nice community. This is just so successful beyond my imagination.”

Erica Curless wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP.

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