Freeborn County now an ‘age-friendly’ community

Published 4:55 pm Tuesday, September 26, 2023

There was a celebration Tuesday morning at the Albert Lea Senior Center. But it wasn’t for a birthday or wedding milestone.

“Freeborn County has made a commitment and joined the AARP network of age-friendly communities,” said Jay Haapala, associate state director of community engagement for AARP Minnesota.

Because of that, their effort was recognized by the county board, residents and leaders with a plaque.

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Haapala described the award as a “big deal,” and there are roughly 800 communities across the country who have joined their age-friendly community network.

Within an age-friendly community, there are eight domains: Transportation, civic participation and employment, communication and information, respect and social inclusion, social participation, health services and community support, housing and outdoor spaces and buildings. Haapala described it as three categories: The build environment, the social environment and the service environment.

Tuesday’s event was a gathering and recognition, and a plaque was presented.

Haapala said the plaque was only the beginning of the work.

“The group will work with community members to set some priorities and make a plan, and then implement changes and make improvements to different aspects of community life that include older residents and account for people’s needs and preferences and make the county an even better place for people of all ages,” he said.

In total, Haapala estimated there were between five to six counties and another 15 cities in the state with the recognition.

Joining is a five-year commitment, which starts with an assessment to survey residents to find out their needs and preferences, creating an action plan and then implementing it.

Following the presentation, Shari Sprague, executive director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the next steps, which will include the county-wide assessment.

“We are looking to put a small committee together to help us assemble this assessment,” she said. “The good thing is that because we have Blue Zones, because we have public health, because we have Mayo and all these other entities here that do these different surveys about our community, we’re able to take results from that and put it together so some of the information that we would be looking for we probably already have.”

According to Sprague, the survey will be funded through grant money. She didn’t have a timeline for when the surveys would be sent out, but noted it would take a couple months to get the assessment ready

“We’re so excited about this,” she said following the meeting. “We’ve worked for a long time to get county support on this to be able to be recognized as age-friendly Freeborn County.”

Diane Wichmann, co-chair for the Memory Cafe, decided to attend after Jean Eaton asked her to.

“I’ve always liked being involved with the seniors,” she said.

She was excited following the plaque presentation, and described it as interesting.

“This is the first meeting that I have been to,” she said. “I like being involved in the community, and I also like helping seniors.”