By: Christa Meland
More than 20 years ago, when Tracy Keibler’s pastor asked if she’d give rides to an elderly member who could no longer get himself to church, she had no idea that this simple act would result in a deep friendship. But that’s exactly what happened. Over time, the man became “Grandpa Gene” to her children, and her family grew to love him.
After Gene died in 2006, the parish nurse at Keibler’s church, Normandale Hylands UMC in Bloomington, came to her with a problem: The church’s older adults who were popular, social, and connected had no problem getting rides to the doctor and meals when they were ill. But others were falling through the cracks. The parish nurse wondered if there was a way to systematize what Keibler did for Grandpa Gene so that this group wasn’t forgotten.
Keibler, who has a master’s degree in gerontology, agreed to start working as an advocate for older adults in her church. The biggest need that emerged was helping them access Medicaid benefits, and she quickly became an expert on navigating the health care system. The hope was for Keibler to become a full-time staff member of Normandale Hylands, but as her work expanded beyond the church and it became clear that there wasn’t funding for the position, she started a nonprofit, ApparentPlan, in 2012. Normandale Hylands continues to be her base of operation.
Through it, Keibler provides health promotion programs and advocacy services for older adults and their families. In the past six years, she has helped her clients access more than $1 million worth of benefits at no cost to them. She has worked with families to find care facilities and mediated meetings in difficult situations in which family members disagreed about the most appropriate care. She is the North Central Jurisdiction representative to the UMC Committee on Older Adult Ministry and previously served on the Minnesota Board on Aging. She has met with both state and federal representatives to advocate for legislation that would make health care more accessible to older adults. Keibler regularly works with seniors having to decide between paying rent, buying food, and purchasing prescription drugs because they are unaware of the programs available to them.
“If you are 75, 85 years old and you have never accessed public benefits until Medicare, you have no idea how to do it—the system is overwhelming,” she said. “I will be a dog with a bone for seniors because this is not how we’re supposed to be treating older adults. We’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. We don’t cast aside people just because they’re old or because they have dementia.”
Keibler, who feels God is calling her to this ministry with older adults, estimates that she works on roughly five complex cases in a given month. But she’s fielding questions from and providing assistance to new individuals daily and works with hundreds of individuals over the course of a year. People mostly learn about her services through clergy referrals or word of mouth, and Hennepin County and other government entities often refer those needing assistance to her.
ApparentPlan also offers five tai chi classes every week, each of which averages about 10 people. Keibler explains that a huge issue for older adults is falling, and tai chi has been proven to reduce falls by 70 percent for people with a history of falling and to be beneficial for those with arthritis and other conditions. She’s taught classes at a number of United Methodist churches, including Centennial UMC in Roseville, Grace UMC in Burnsville, Richfield UMC, Hillcrest UMC in Minneapolis, and Good Samaritan UMC in Edina. After each class, participants have tea together while offering support to one another and learning about resources that can assist them.
Keibler has received some funding from the Minneapolis Foundation. Now, she works to fundraise, but it’s tough—and her compensation often comes in the form of personal fulfillment rather than a paycheck.
Her hope is that a group of churches might pool their resources to hire her as a part-time staff person to work with people both inside and outside of those congregations.
“My vision is to raise up an army of people who are interested in older adult ministry,” she said. “Caring for aging adults is our opportunity as Christians. What you’ve done to the least of these people you’ve done to me…To bring that level of love and connection in aging—that’s the gift that the church can give.”
Keibler said she didn’t grow up with grandparents; hers died before she was born. But everywhere she’s lived, she’s found a grandparent figure to bring into her life. Those relationships have been vitally important to her, and they’ve motivated her to want help older adults finish strong in faith and dignity.
“Aging is hard—there isn’t dignity in it,” she said. “If the faith is going to be strong and survive, it’s the stories of the older adults who can give that testimony of ‘this is when I knew Jesus loved me,’ ‘this is when I knew I wasn’t alone.’ It’s in the faith stories of those older adults that I believe Christianity thrives from one generation to the next.”
Contact Tracy Keibler (952-215-7052) if you know of older adults needing assistance or if your church is interested in partnering with Apparent Plan.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church