Aging with Mastery

Sara Delgado knows about isolation.  When her ex-husband returned to Mexico five years ago, she was left alone, approaching old age in a world she often struggled to understand.

“With my ex-husband gone I felt alone,” she recalled.  “I needed support from my community, my people, and to understand it’s not only me, maybe another person, another family, felt like me.”

Sarah found support through Aging Mastery, an innovative CSU Extension program designed to promote wellbeing among older Coloradoans, while also creating new connections in communities with unique language or cultural characteristics.

The Aging Mastery program is based on a curriculum developed by the National Council on Aging.  Originally designed as a traditional classroom program, the program geared toward addressing common aging concerns while helping older Americans think differently about what it means to age.

“The idea is that as we age, we may lose track of the fact that we can thrive in our older years,” Sue Schneider, CSU Extension State Specialist and Health Lead, said.  “We may just need a little bit of education, a little bit of community connection, a little bit of support, but we have this opportunity to really thrive.”

Embracing a Population Uniquely in Need

Although English-language versions of the Aging Mastery program had been offered successfully across the country, Peggy Stoltenberg, with CSU’s Northeast Regional Engagement Center in Sterling, recognized an opportunity to offer the program to Spanish speakers, a growing segment of the local community.  In doing so, however, the CSU team realized that simply translating the classroom program from English to Spanish would not be enough.

“CSU Extension has a long history of serving communities across Colorado,” Eric Ishiwata, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies for CSU, explained. “For this particular course, though, our Extension staff didn’t have a lot of capacity to provide a Spanish language curriculum.  So, the first challenge was to find an instructor who not only could teach the course in Spanish, but also create a classroom environment that was really welcoming and adapted to the cultural needs of our participants.”

Because CSU Extension didn’t have a long history of engaging with the area’s Spanish-speaking community, the team had to develop new ways of recruiting students, with careful consideration given to where and when classes would be offered.  The team also modified the program curriculum to fit the learning styles and expectations students.

Stoltenberg said a key to the program’s success was having an instructor who understood the teaching style and tempo best suited to Spanish speakers.   As it turned out, one of the Sterling program’s first graduates, Sara Delgado, showed so much promise and interest in the program that she agreed to undergo training and became an ideal facilitator for the program.

“Some of the things that Sara has taught me about teaching in the Spanish culture is you’ve got to have fun,” Stoltenberg said.  “I mean, everybody likes to have fun, but especially within that culture, people are just not interested in sitting still for a one-and-a-half to two-hour-long lecture.”

As the program evolved, Ishiwata said the CSU team quickly realized that class participants, many of them still caregivers, rarely had the luxury of carving out time in the day just for themselves.  “By participating in the Aging Mastery course once a week, they were able to come together and really socialize, build peer-to-peer support networks,” he said. “So, one of the adaptations we did is to make sure we had light refreshments, and it ended up being a big deal to have Mexican pastries available along with water and juice. And so it became a learning event, but also a social event.”

“News Started to Get Out”

Based on the success of the Sterling Program, news quickly spread that CSU had a program for seniors that was linguistically accessible and culturally adaptive. That interest soon led to a partnership with the Denver Regional Council of Governments to provide a version of the program for older refugees who had resettled in the Denver area.  Offered via the Older Adult Refugees & Friends Program, the program reached about 50 senior whose languages ranged from Arabic to Swahili, French, Tigrinya, Amharic and Farsi.

“I think the expectation was that this class was full of information that we were going to throw at people, and they were going to listen, and maybe they were going to feel bored,” said Zara Otaifah, an Older Adult Refugees & Friends Counselor and Aging Mastery Instructor.  “But their expectation changed as they were part of the class.  They were really engaging and their input was really necessary in that classroom.  You could see their level of energy and excitement going up. That’s what built the whole environment, so they felt more confident to be part of this and to share their voices, their perspective and ideas.”

Fellow Instructor Lydia Dumam added that, because facilitators understood and respected the participants’ culture, they were able to build trust and a shared appreciation for the topics covered.  “For me, it’s not only providing the classes or the topics, what we’re teaching, but we learned a lot from them, from older adults,” she said.  “I was cross-discussion.  That was a huge thing.”

‘A Keystone Project’ for Building Broader Community Engagement

For CSU’s Extension & Engagement team, Aging Mastery not only offers a way to bring knowledge and resources to older Coloradans, but also a change to build bridges into previously underserved communities..

“As we look at our goal of making sure that we are opening the doors of our programs to all Coloradoans, we’ve identified Aging Mastery as being one of those keystone projects that can really launch efforts in areas that maybe we haven’t had a lot of experience or a lot of success,” Ishiwata said.

Since the program’s successful launch in Sterling, the Spanish Aging Mastery class has now been expanded to include five additional offerings in southeastern Colorado.  The curriculum also is being adapted for use with Colorado’s Native American population.

“We’ve always had a big commitment to supporting our partners at the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, and those tribal members expressed an interest in having an Aging Mastery program,” Ishiwata said. “So we have started to work with some of our key contacts with the tribe to figure out what types of changes we needed to make to ensure the program fits with their community.”

It’s the way Extension works to be able to meet different populations where they are,” Schneider added. “By expanding these programs across the state, and recognizing that all populations do not approach aging in the exact same way, we can create conversations around aging that can and should be happening among all populations.”

Creating ‘Safe Spaces’ to Combat Social Isolation

An key benefit of the Aging Mastery program, according to Schneider, is its ability to help combat social isolation, a serious and growing problem among America’s aging population.

“Social isolation has been an issue for a while,” she explained.  “As we age, we change our routines. We may not be working and may not be involved in the same activities, and there tends to be just a little bit less connection.  By creating safe spaces, community spaces, places that Extension offers via this program, these are great ways to address this issue of social isolation.”

Feelings of isolation can be even greater within aging communities also facing a language barrier, noted Claudia Coronado, Aging Mastery Instructor in Lamar CO.

“The participants say ‘We are just there at home.  We go home, we work back home, so there’s nothing for us to do in our home language, that we’re just isolated.  We wish that we had more programs like this so that we can come out of our shell and help out our community like everyone else does.’”

“When we stay home, we think we are the only ones having a problem, or we are the only ones feeling like this, but we learn everyone has the same feelings,” Delgado said.  “Now, we are learning that we need to tell somebody, and then together we can find the solution or the resource for that situation.”

Serving the Full Diversity of Colorado

CSU’s approach to the Aging Mastery program is an ideal example of how communities can come together to support America’s growing and diverse older population, According to Susan Stiles, Senior Director, Healthy Aging Innovations, National Council on Aging.

“The thing that I will say about this program at Colorado State University is that it really far exceeded my expectations in the best possible way,” Stiles said. “We’re just thrilled that they saw the need in the community, and they took on this effort themselves and really, I think, provided a great resource.”

For the CSU team, Aging Mastery represents another key tool in overcoming obstacles in serving the full diversity of Colorado, Ishiwata said.

“There are a lot of barriers,” he said.  “There’s language barriers. There’s cultural barriers. There’s trust barriers. We’re finding Aging Mastery to be that easy foothold, the first step to build relationships.

“And at the end of the courses, students are asking: What’s next? What other programs do you have for our kids or our grandkids?  And so we’re going to leverage these opportunities to make sure that we’re really providing the full wealth of Extension programming and resources to the entire state.”

I’m really thankful because this is an opportunity to come out of our houses and show to the whole community who we are,” Delgado said. “We are people who like to help, we are people who like to do a lot of stuff for the community, but sometimes we are scared because we think we are alone. With this type of class, we learn we are not alone.”