Envisioning the Future with Pioneer Network

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Kristian Partington, Schlegel Villages
reprinted with permission from Village Voice

Aspen Lake’s Barry Hickling and Jenny Brown were both panelists in two separate sessions at the first ever virtual Pioneer Network Conference. (Photo from 2019For more than a decade, Schlegel Villages has found inspiration in its quest to change the culture of aging within its villages and beyond through The Pioneer Network, one of the world’s most forward-thinking organizations dedicated to improving the lives of our oldest citizens.

Each year, a delegation of Schlegel ambassadors has travelled to various locations in the United States to attend the annual Pioneer Network Conference, returning home with new insights to share and ideas to pass along to Villagers. Evolving supports for residents living with dementia; new concepts of neighbourhood design; immense focus on the power of relationships; dedicated team member support and consistent assignments; enhanced dining experiences; these are but a few of the many concepts The Pioneer Network has helped nurture within Schlegel Villages.

This year, however, the conference looks much different. The obvious restrictions on travel and gathering in large numbers forced the core Pioneer Network team to reimagine what the conference could look like. As with so many events, this gathering has gone virtual. Beginning Sept. 1, people from around the world have connected to sessions online, and while the beauty of in-person networking has been lost, the importance of the learning and the chance to hear inspiring thoughts on the future of care for the elders of our communities continues to shine brightly. Hundreds connected to Schlegel Villages have been able to attend, thanks to virtual nature of the conference.

“This virtual format has supported people who have never been able to attend our conference before to be welcomed into the family,” says Pioneer Network CEO Penny Cook, “and we have many residents of care communities with us who are sharing their perspectives.”

The pandemic and the strain it has placed on seniors and those who care for them has been a central focus, but as with any organization the seeks to build upon strength, the negative aspects of the last six months have taken a backseat. Yes, there have been struggles, but many of the presenters have also shared how much has been learned through this time and what gives them hope for the future.

Indeed, the theme of the virtual conference is Envision the Future: 2020 and Beyond, and care partners, elders and leaders of the sector have been discussing exactly what the future can look like, even as the ramifications of a global pandemic continue to unfold.

A particularly inspiring session took place on Sept. 2, when a small panel of elders discussed their experience during the past six months and the source of their hope for the future. They hailed from different corners of North America: Herberta, an inspiring woman with global nursing experience, lives in a seniors community in Philadelphia; Verna lives independently in a home in Colorado; Brian is an inspiring advocate from Florida who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in his late 50s; and Barry is a resident in the Village of Aspen Lake in Windsor who says “I have been revitalized” since moving to the Village five years ago.

In their own way, they each spoke of the power of continuing to grow and learn each and every day as a source of power for older adults, and care partners have a role to play in supporting this. It is how they find hope and meaning, even in the midst of the dark challenges of the past months.

“I have a hope that endures and it gives me a richness for life,” Barry said, adding that hope means creating plans to continue to grow and learn. Hope is in his spiritual life, he said: “hope is eternal; it is inside of us and we do not have to allow it to be smothered by the things of the world.”

Verna took that idea to a different place, pointing out that older adults must also have the opportunity to contribute to the betterment of their communities by offering their wisdom and experience to others.

“If we are to be healthy, we need to care for others,” Verna said quite simply.

As the Pioneer Network prepares to close its final day of virtual sessions, which have all been recorded for attendees to access for up to 45 days, the concept of service to others is front and centre.

“When I’ve gone into sessions and see people ‘chatting’ and I enter discussion rooms and get to see everyone’s faces engaged and sharing, it warms my heart,” says Pioneer Network CEO Penny Cook. “Community is the antidote to institutionalization for all of us, no matter where we live, what age we are or what abilities or disabilities we have.

“In one word,” Penny continues, “I’d say this has been inspirational for me and I thank everyone who has made it happen and who came on this adventure with us. This is what Pioneer Network is all about.”

One comment on “Envisioning the Future with Pioneer Network

  1. Sr. Paula Hagen, OSB on

    Sorry, I am a vowed religious, so I cannot make a donatiion, but i am overjoyed to read about the good you are doing for our elderly people who are just as sacred a person as I am. My prayers are with you. Paula

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