A community of caregiving in Albert Lea for 50 years

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, February 24, 2024

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By Ayanna Eckblad

It is almost impossible to live in Albert Lea without hearing the name “Thorne Crest,” and there is a good reason for this.

Thorne Crest is a senior living community owned by American Baptist Homes of the Midwest that provides a full continuum of senior living care, including skilled nursing, independent living, assisted living, memory care, rehabilitation therapy and respite care.

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This year the facility is celebrating 50 years of providing service to residents and their families.

Thorne Crest has a rich history in the community beginning with the building it is located in. The facility was previously St. Mary’s Catholic School, and Thorne Crest took ownership of the building and admitted its first resident to skilled nursing in 1974.

Thorne Crest prides itself on having amenities that are not available at other senior living communities in the area. Some of these include an indoor swimming pool and a climate-controlled indoor garage for residents.

Thorne Crest’s success can be attributed to its dedicated and skilled staff. They have a full-time wellness director, Jordan Montes, who works with residents in group classes, as well as one-on-one. There is also an on-site director of spiritual care services, Todd Walsh.

Director of sales and marketing Catherine Buboltz explained the importance of having a spiritual director at their facility.

“When someone is transitioning or passing away, he’s there at that time to be able to pray with the family and to be able to spend time with the family and to be there for any of their spiritual needs,” Buboltz said.

Some of Thorne Crest’s staff have been working there for decades. Two staff members in particular both began in entry-level positions and eventually became part of the management team.

The first aforementioned staff member, Beth Rheinfels of Albert Lea, began working at Thorne Crest after college. Rheinfels planned on working at the facility temporarily until she found a different job. Now 43 years later, she is the health information manager.

“I was lucky enough to grow my career and learn and move through different positions throughout the building,” said Rheinfels. “I thought that was an absolute joy.”

Rheinfels spoke very highly about the former director of nursing, Kathy Rogers, and how she became a mentor figure for her, as well as many other Thorne Crest staff members.

“She set her expectations. She was a tough nurse, she was a tough boss,” Rheinfels said. “But it was great, and she appreciated everything you did.”

Thorne Crest’s staff grieved when Rogers passed away this past year.

Shortly after being hired as a CNA, Rheinfels bonded with a Thorne Crest resident.

“You always have the ones you don’t forget,” she said. “I called [that resident] grandma between me and her … This lady was so cool and I didn’t have any grandparents … We were very close.”

After the resident’s health declined, she passed away during Rheinfels’ shift

“She wanted me to take care of her one last time, and that’s an honor,” Rheinfels said.

Later on in her career, Rheinfels brought her young son to Thorne Crest so he could read and play games with another one of the residents. Rheinfels remembers that it was great for everyone involved because her son was having trouble learning to read, but was motivated to improve his skills to be able to read with his Thorne Crest friend.

“They had so much fun together,” Rheinfels said.

Another employee, Marilyn Claassen of Albert Lea, has been working at Thorne Crest for 47 years, almost the entire time the facility has been open. She began her career there during high school working in housekeeping. She continued working at Thorne Crest through college and now holds the position of activities director.

“We have so many different backgrounds in all areas of our building,” Claassen said. “The people that live here is the reason [staff] stay so long.”

One of Claasen’s most memorable experiences was working with a resident who was passionate about music and formed a singing group with some of the other residents.

“Then all of a sudden she had a stroke and that was so devastating because this person was so active,” Claassen said. “She was able to follow things but not communicate anymore, which was hard.”

Claassen continued to care for this resident throughout her recovery.

“I was honored to go to [Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute] and see the therapy that she was doing and how to help her so she could gain independence once again as much as she could,” she said. “And I got to be close to her family because they were from out of state.”

As activities director, Claassen works to enrich the lives of residents, a job she finds incredibly rewarding.

“People think elderly people don’t like to learn, but they do, and they have fun doing that,” she said.

Residents can attend health-related presentations on topics like heart disease or memory care, but there have also been presentations on avoiding identity theft and scams. These are usually conducted by local law enforcement, banks and financial institutions. There are also support groups for caregivers. These can be especially beneficial to the spouses of residents.

“I like to make sure our residents are out in the community,” Claassen said. “We go to civic music, we go to ACT (Albert Lea Community Theater) plays. …

We want our residents to see what is out there in our city so when their families come, they can say, ‘Hey, I’m going to show you guys what’s going on down in Albert Lea.’” Thorne Crest residents also go to local restaurants, picnics, walking trails and the county fair.

“I try to take them to anything I can take them to,” Claassen said.

Claassen’s favorite activity, however, is taking residents to see her favorite team, the Minnesota Twins.

The tradition began when Thorne Crest residents went to visit the Twins winter caravan when it came to the Albert Lea Elks Club. The residents had been following the team closely by tuning in to their television and radio games.

Claassen still remembers the first time the Thorne Crest residents went for a Twins outing.

“It was during a snowstorm, actually,” she said. “But [the residents] wanted to go because they’re true Twins fans.”

Since then, Claassen looks forward to bringing residents to as many Twins-related events as she can. At one point, players from the team even visited the Thorne Crest facility.

“We’ve also been lucky enough to go to the games,” Claassen said. “We try to go once a year.” Going to a Minnesota Twins game is something that residents always look forward to. Residents, their families and staff alike make a day of the event by packing lunches and traveling to the game together on a bus.

Aside from physical outings, another element that has made Thorne Crest able to withstand the test of time is its use of technology.

“We’re outstanding in that area,” Rheinfels said.

Claassen explained that technology is what got the Thorne Crest community through the COVID-19 pandemic. Video calling has been an especially valuable resource. Using iPads and Eversound headphones, residents were able to visit with their families.

One resident from Germany was thrown a surprise birthday where friends from Germany could join through video calling. Another resident was able to see and talk to her grandson in Vietnam.

“We also have the VR, virtual reality goggles,” said Claassen. “I think that is just the neatest thing.”

Buboltz also recalls the first time a Thorne Crest resident used the VR goggles.

“When we first got the virtual reality (goggles) we had a resident that had lived here at the time who was from a little European town,” Buboltz said. “We asked her the name of the town where she had grown up and so we took her … down the streets … And you could see her looking up in the air and she’s like ‘isn’t the church just beautiful?’”

Thorne Crest uses VR goggles to show residents other places as well, such as old neighborhoods, churches, safari landscapes, Alaska and Disneyland.

“We’re constantly looking at technology updates,” Buboltz said. She explained that having efficient technology frees up more time for staff to spend with residents.

Staff and residents at Thorne Crest look forward to what the future will bring in terms of both technology and healthcare.

“Change is essential,” Rheinfels said. “Being active at ABHM and Thorne Crest and meeting the community needs,… that’s what we’ve done for the past 50 years, and that will continue after we’re long gone … And I think that’s what we’re great at.”

Volunteers are always needed at Thorne Crest for a variety of activities. Volunteers can come and play cards with residents, read with them, help with crafts or just visit and be a listening ear for people.

Currently Thorne Crest is also accepting applications for new staff members and has open positions for all levels of experience.