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Living independently takes planning

Baby boomers, this one’s for you. A daylong conference focused on increasing independence, function and quality of life for older adults and others at risk takes place Thursday at Barkers Island Inn.

Local and national experts share their knowledge of health literacy, assistive technology, safe driving and other issues that affect seniors.

“Keeping people in the least restrictive living environments is good for everyone,” said Esther Gieshen with UW-Extension who helped organize the “Healthy Minds Healthy Bodies” conference. “Many of the events that lead to a trip to the emergency room that turns into a stay at the hospital and too often a move to a residential care facility can be avoided.” Thursday’s speakers will pool their knowledge on the barriers seniors face and how to navigate them.

With the wave of aging baby boomers and the high percentage of older adults in the Northland population, this is a timely issue, said geriatric nurse Sara McCumber. Also an assistant professor at the College of St. Scholastica, she will speak on how care planning and management can reduce hospital re-admissions.

One in five older adults is re-admitted to a hospital within 30 days of being discharged, McCumber said. “By thinking ahead and having a good understanding of what the older adults actual needs are and services that are needed, and education and coordination, we can reduce the hospital readmissions and help people succeed at home.”

Making a plan work means looking at the big picture, everything the older adult needs in place to remain independent at home. McCumber said keeping physically active, asking questions so you understand and realizing that medications can complicate things.

“Being independent as an older adult does not mean that you cannot and should not try to go it alone,” McCumber said. “Do not be afraid to ask for help. Asking for help does not mean that you have to give up control. It just means that you have more resources to help you be successful.”

Randy Rusnak and Aaron Windsor aim to open people’s eyes to the assistive technology available in everyday life. What they are promoting, Rusnak said, is “living life to the fullest.”

These aids run the gamut from the National Library Service’s talking book program to high-tech bar code scanners that can help a user distinguish between a can of lemon furniture polish and lemon-scented oven cleaner.

“Apps aren’t going to make up for what you don’t know,” said Rusnak, who works at the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss in Duluth, but “you need to know they’re available.” The last four years have brought a flood of development in devices and applications that can help people retain independence. During their portion of the presentation, Rusnak and Windsor plan to demonstrate as many as they can.

iPhones offer a voice over app that help users navigate them; script readers do just that when a prescription pill bottle is scanned; audio books can be downloaded from the BARD website.

“There are so many different ways of reading, it’s wonderful,” Rusnak said.

A number of devices are listed on the Lighthouse website, A self-professed radical about passing on technological news, Rusnak can also be followed on Twitter, @thebigr.

Dr. Paul Smith with the University of Wisconsin Department of Family Medicine will tackle the topic of health literacy while Karen Bastianelli, a professor with the University of Minnesota Duluth school of pharmacy, will discuss medication therapy management. According to the World Health Organization, about 125,000 people die annually because they don’t take their medications correctly.

Mary Lou Donovan, a professor in the occupational therapy department at the College of St. Scholastica, discusses what staying at home really involves.

“If a person has good support, from family, friends, neighbors, their church community, the likelihood of them living successfully in their home for a longer time increases,” Donovan said. Safety is the primary concern and an assessment by an occupational therapist can help ensure that.

“It’s important to analyze the fit between the environment, the person, and their occupations, or the things they need to do every day,” Donovan said. “This is an area of specialization that often is overlooked.”

And it includes access to supportive resources such as transportation, chore services and caregiver respite — many of the items a family must consider when making a care management plan. Often, McCumber said, people have an unrealistic optimism for how well an older adult will be able to manage at home. One of the elements that gets left out is the importance of social interaction. The opening presentation by Jill Ballard with Wisconsin’s Aging Network focuses on balancing physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing, each an important dimension of wellness.

“We all focus on one or a couple areas of our health at a time, but by increasing awareness of all the dimensions of wellness, we can better balance our lives in order to maximize our health,” she said. Emotional well-being in particular is often overlooked.

“Wellness is not just the absence of disease,” Ballard said. “Wellness is a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving our full potential. And it’s fun.”

Registration for the event is accepted through Wednesday. The cost $35 per person; $20 for people age 60 and older. Lunch is provided.

For information or to register, call 715-394-8469 or go to