It’s about 9 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 5, and the Campus West building in Bedford, in northwest Tarrant County, has been transformed into a festival of sorts. Young at Heart Band members are strumming their guitars on the central stage. There’s a guy making flowers and dogs out of balloons roaming around, and in another room, a round of Bingo has just commenced. Soon, there’ll be a salsa dancing and Zumba workshop, and later, singer Ken Nelson will be crooning some favorite Frank Sinatra tunes.
But this isn’t really a festival, though it almost feels like one. It’s a vendor show, and 120 vendors have set up booths in two large exhibit rooms. It’s also a health fair, offering free blood pressure, bone density, cholesterol, diabetes, fall risk, hearing, vision and spinal screenings. And it’s an educational conference, with topics ranging from identity theft and stress management to creative caregiving, professional marketing and volunteerism.
And Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes is in the midst of it all, feeling excited and optimistic about the day, one of his favorite days of the year.
“We’ve got sunny skies, the weather is great,” he said, adding that he’s expecting visitors to arrive by the busload throughout the day and that nearly 100 volunteers are on hand to help the event run smoothly. It’s the fourth year in a row his staff has helped organize this vendor show, and it’s grown considerably since its humble beginnings. Looking around the room, Fickes’ main concern is that his staff will have to find a larger venue next year. “We turn vendors away,” he said. “We are at the maximum vendor space. We rearranged this whole facility this year over last year to bring in more vendors. … I think we’re going to run into a space problem after this year.”
Five hours later, Empowering Seniors 2012 had successfully ended without a hitch. More than 1,500 senior citizens and their caregivers had visited with critical resource providers such as the Alzheimer’s Association, the Deaf Action Center, the Hurst Senior Activities Center, Spine Team Texas, North Hills Hospital and others. They’d gotten a free Chick-Fil-A boxed lunch, enjoyed some live music, caught up with old friends, and received the medical information necessary to hopefully stay healthy and active for another year.
FILLING A NEED
Fickes and his staff launched the Empowering Seniors event back in 2009, after creating a task force to look into the ways in which the county could help improve services to its aging baby boomer population. Task force members, who include representatives from organizations like Meals on Wheels, United Way and area senior centers, noted that there was no place in the county where seniors could go and get all the information they needed in just one trip and recommended creating an annual event in which they could do so.
“Each city has a senior citizens center, and they do a great job, but from a county perspective, there was a void,” Fickes said.
Community Outreach Coordinator Rebecca Barksdale took on the responsibility of realizing the task force’s goal. The office partnered with task force members and area hospitals to pull off the first event, which had just 35 vendors, a keynote speaker and a luncheon. Unfortunately, the space could only accommodate 300 attendees, and some people who wanted to participate were turned away.
“We had a huge outpouring of people that wanted to come,” Barksdale said, adding that her focus for the second year was making sure the event could accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. For 2010, organizers made the decision to switch to box lunches, change facilities, offer more health screenings and add more vendors. About 900 people attended that year’s event. Word kept spreading, and the 2011 event fed 1,200 seniors and caregivers.
The event has been so successful that it earned a 2012 County Best Practices Award from the Texas Association of Counties Leadership Program.
ISSUES WITH AGING
When the task force first started meeting, members identified six major concerns and challenges facing seniors: isolation, transportation, healthcare, financial security, identify theft and employment. The Empowering Seniors event encompasses each of those issues via vendors, workshops and other methods.
Walking around the 2012 event, seniors received their flu shots, learned about their risk for osteoporosis, discovered the Harris Methodist Hospital’s Fall Prevention Program and received information on a six-session workshop on caring for Alzheimer’s patients in the home. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas was on hand to talk about how a healthy diet contributes to a healthy mind and North Hills Hospital offered information on breast care. And several county offices — including veteran’s services, the county clerk, the district clerk, the tax assessor-collector and the health department — set up shop to discuss county services.
In workshops, seniors heard from their peers and experts about lifetime achievements, building and expanding support networks, how to talk to loved ones about future care options and “what the Lone Ranger, Tarzan and Superman taught us about job search.” In one workshop, a panel of seniors and volunteer workers discussed the benefits they’d received from working with non-profit organizations after retirement.
“The health benefits of volunteerism are linked to a decline in depression,” Peter Luby, of Senior Citizens Services of Greater Tarrant County, told a group of attendees, adding that studies show that seniors who volunteer for about two hours each week are happier and more active than those who don’t. He encouraged seniors to get involved in their communities and to be open-minded about opportunities that come up. “You can’t judge what’s going to be meaningful to someone, and I hope that if you are considering becoming a volunteer that you sort of abandon judgments for yourself of what you’re going to find meaningful. But it’s okay to ask, ‘what will I get out of this?’”
The event itself energizes the seniors it serves by providing entertainment, games and a place to socialize with friends.
“A large problem that we have right now is senior isolation,” Barksdale said. “In this area, we have transportation agencies that serve, but a lot of it is strictly medical. A lot of seniors don’t get out for that social aspect, so that’s really a wonderful thing. I think that’s one of the key things, is it’s just a fun event for them.”
Vendors offered other cures for isolation, too: the Bedford Animal Shelter was on hand to speak to seniors about the companionship provided through animal adoption.
The event has already had a direct and real impact on attendees’ health and lives, thanks to the medical screenings offered. Barksdale said that hospitals refer about 60 percent of the attendees to treatment and medical help. For instance, one man attended the 2011 event and discovered through a screening that he had diabetes. He stabilized his health and now gives talks to local rotary clubs and other organizations about diabetes prevention.
“We’re finding that a significant percentage of the people who come here, a health screening that they have done shows some type of concern. So these people can go and have something done about it,” Fickes said. “If they weren’t here, they would never have that screening and nothing would get done about it until it reached a critical situation.”
But Empowering Seniors isn’t just for senior citizens. After the first event in 2009, seniors told organizers they felt topics should be expanded to include things like retirement planning and caregiving, which expanded the target audience to those in their 40s and 50s.
“Those people need to be making a lot of decisions,” Barksdale said. “We really worked in some seminars regarding caregiving and various things. We had a wonderful seminar this year targeting women in their 40s, 50s and 60s with lifestyle issues and financial issues and things that they need to be working on and looking at right now. And I have to say, I was 38 years old when I started taking care of my father. He was in Dallas, and I didn’t know anybody in South Dallas. So this is a wonderful starting point for even someone younger that may have to take care of their family.”
Fickes said he’s finding new issues pop up each year that he hopes the event can help address.
“A big thing that we see more and more of is, we’ve got grandparents who are taking care of their grandkids, and that’s a whole other issue that we try to approach. It’s caring for the caregiver,” he said.
PAYING THE WAY
The county gets a lot of publicity each year for the Empowering Seniors event, but it doesn’t use any taxpayer money to pull it off.
Instead, it relies on five area hospitals to serve as sponsors and additional vendors to pay the way. So far, vendor space has been so popular that the county has made money from the event. All money generated by the event goes toward five organizations that provide transportation services to senior citizens, Fickes said.
Barksdale contributes the event’s success with finding vendors to three main factors: the staff of volunteers that work to help vendors set up, tear down and eat lunch; the crowd of seniors who are genuinely interested the services offered by the vendors; and the music and entertainers that keep the rooms busy and cheerful.
“The first couple years, we really were seeking vendors, going out to meetings and organizations and to the chambers of commerce and trying to tell our story,” she said, adding that she had to turn away nearly 20 vendors for this year’s event due to lack of space. “Now, when you grow like we have, you have people coming to you. We literally got our first call for registrations for this event in March.”
The event is so well-loved that even the entertainers are volunteers.
“They have donated their services, which is just incredible,” Barksdale said. “They’re similar to a vendor, where we tell them to feel free to hand out business cards, and so I’ve seen several people come up to our entertainers who want to book them for something else. I think it’s good exposure for them and I think they enjoy being out here and doing something for others.”
The event does take up some staff time throughout the year, but Barksdale said staff members enjoy putting it on and look forward to it year-round.
“It’s meaningful for our staff,” she said. “Our staff has really enjoyed being a part of this. It’s really one of the best things we do all year and it makes them feel good. They enjoy doing something for others and they all bond as a group.”
Several vendors said the Empowering Seniors event is one of the best exhibit shows they participate in.
“They value vendors very much, as much as the participants. When you arrive, they help you take in your supplies, and they’ll let you have breakfast and coffee and water and they deliver lunch to you and check in throughout the event to see whether everything is okay. They are just very considerate,” said vendor Mary Jean Moloney, who works as the manager of public affairs for Atmos Energy. The company set up a booth last year to talk to seniors about the value of natural gas and ways to save on energy bills. “I found it to be very rewarding. There’s a great number of people that attend, and it’s just a very upbeat event. I just find it an inspiring event.”
Seniors also said they greatly enjoy the day and the ability to see friends, dance to live music, discover new treatment options and talk to medical professionals.
“I’ve been to these fairs before and I really enjoy it. We see what is new and going on and what different things there are that can help us,” said Pauline Robbins, who had come to the event via a City of Southlake Senior Activity Center bus. While roaming, she had discovered a bracelet that helps relieve arthritis. “I bought the little watch — it looks like a watch — that’s supposed to take the pain away, and hopefully it does. We heard from several people who said it works. And we played Bingo once. I didn’t win.”
Regardless of the Bingo loss, Robbins said she enjoyed all the exhibits and vendors and plans to come back again.
“It was a really good (event). I enjoyed everybody and the helpers, and everybody was very kind,” she said.
ADVICE FOR COPY CATS
Fickes and Barksdale both said they are hopeful their event will inspire similar efforts across the state, and offered words of encouragement to anyone who might want to create their own local Empowering Seniors event.
Fickes said the event would not have happened without the creation of the senior-focused task force.
“If you have a senior citizen group in your community, you need to engage them. They are the key to making this happen,” he said. “You’ve got to involve your caregiver community. That’s the medical community, your assisted living centers, your nursing homes.”
The county offers pre-event registration each year so that it knows how many boxed lunches it needs. Pre-registration is available via the Tarrant County Precinct 3 website and by phone, and the office utilizes local newspapers and senior centers to spread the word. Walk-ins are also allowed.
Once the event starts, all attendees sign in at a front booth so that staff can get contact information for follow-up surveys, which are conducted via the online tool Survey Monkey the week after the event.
“We’ll survey our attendees, our sponsors, our vendors and our volunteers, and they all get different surveys,” Barksdale said, adding that staff also conduct several post-event focus groups. “Every year we learn new things. What we’ve heard today and what we heard last year is everybody loves the crowd, they love access to this many people and the hospitals love being able to serve this many people with the health screenings. The people really have fun.” ✯