Catholic Charities sponsors sixth annual Aging Conference Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Mary Uhler and Kevin Wondrash, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 -- 12:00 AM
shilagh mirgain
Keynote speaker Dr. Shilagh Mirgain talks to the group attending the Aging Conference. (Catholic Herald photo/Kevin Wondrash)

MADISON -- “Positive Healthy Aging!” was the theme of the sixth annual Aging Conference sponsored by Catholic Charities Madison.

This year it was held on October 13 at the new All Saints Neighborhood Main Street and featured a keynote address, two panel discussions, breakout sessions, and exhibits.

‘How to Thrive in Changing Times’

Keynote speaker Dr. Shilagh Mirgain, a health psychologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, gave the keynote address on “How to Thrive in Changing Times.”

She spoke about thriving at any age, but she focused many of her remarks on aging persons. She said her own parents retired recently, facing challenges on how to “shift and change” their lives.

“They’re thriving,” said Dr. Mirgain. “My father even built a bocce ball court in his yard.”

She described her mother as an “avid reader,” noting that her favorite book was The Secret of Tibet by William Dixon Bell.

That book inspired Dr. Mirgain’s own desire to study abroad in Nepal. One of the highlights was an opportunity to meet and be blessed by the Dalai Lama. The experience affected her so much that, she recalled, “I broke into tears.”

She promised herself that some day she would visit Tibet, and she actually did make the trip two years ago, 20 years after putting it on her “bucket list.”

Dr. Mirgain talked about four essential building blocks for thriving in changing times:

• Cultivate self awareness. So much comes at us in the world today, she said. We’re often reacting to what is happening around us. Challenges include being too busy, pulled in too many directions, dealing with difficult people, lack of support, and health issues.

Dr. Mirgain also discussed the “iPhone effect,” where people communicate by technology rather than face-to-face. She also noted that people’s attention span is dwindling.

In cultivating self awareness, Dr. Mirgain suggested developing mindfulness, that is, paying attention in a particular way to the present moment. “We must train our brains to increase the ability to focus.”

She encouraged spending 18 to 20 minutes a day in silence, doing such things as reading the Bible, praying, meditating, journaling, exercising, and spending time in nature. Studies have shown that when people do this, she said, they have more vigor, optimism, and enthusiasm and less anger, fear, anxiety, and depression.

• Develop stress hardiness. Stress in itself isn’t bad, said Dr. Mirgain. The problem is staying stressed for a longer period of time. “Some stress can mobilize us for action. Too much stress for too long can lead to anxiety,” she said.

Unfortunately, negative experiences act like Velcro and stick to our brain. Positive experiences act like Teflon and slide away. “We’re overly focused on what’s wrong,” she said.

Instead, we have to try to “rewire our brain” by focusing on the good and positive experiences in our lives. One thing she suggested is to practice deep breathing techniques to help eliminate tension.

• Rediscover wonder. Rediscovering wonder and awe can actually strengthen our immune system, said Dr. Mirgain. “In childhood, we experience awe, but we often lose it as we get older.”

She suggested that we can cultivate awe every day by spending time in nature, looking for opportunities for positive experiences, and noticing and appreciating things that we have taken for granted.

• Create a ripple. Dr. Mirgain quoted St. Teresa of Kolkata who has said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” The speaker said we “can make a difference each and every day” by sharing our gifts and talents.

She encouraged people to practice “loving kindness.”

She encouraged conference participants to follow her on Facebook at Dr. Shilagh Mirgain or on the web at

‘Healthy Minds All Around’

The morning panel discussion was called “Healthy Minds all Around.” The panel was facilitated by Carol Koby, host of the radio program All About Living and former consumer advocate on WKOW-TV in Madison.

Panelists were Kim Mueller, researcher with the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute; Christine Beatty, director of the Madison Senior Center; and Cheri Milton from Agrace HospiceCare.

The panelists each gave a short talk, followed by a question and answer session with the attendees.

Mueller talked about ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease from her research with WRAP, the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention.

There are now 5.4 million people in the United States with Alzheimer’s “and we expect that number to increase,” said Mueller.

She added that some risk factors that can be changed to help slow the onset of Alzheimer’s are lifestyle, cognitive environment, exercise, diet, sleep, and mood. Factors that cannot be changed are age, family history, and gender.

She called exercise “one of the keys to brain health” and those who are physically active have shown better cognition scores in WRAP tests.

In her talk, Beatty spoke about how senior centers “promote healthy lives” in the Madison area and nationwide. She remarked how every day, 10,000 people turn 65, so there is a growing need for promoting healthy lives to seniors.

“The senior center philosophy is based on three premises,” she said. They are: aging is a normal process, humans need connections with their peers for encouragement and support, and older adults have a right to a decision-making voice.

“Do not regret growing older,” Beatty said in closing her talk. “It is a privilege that has been denied to many.”

During her turn, Milton said, “I am excited about growing older,” expressing thankfulness at the resources available in the Madison area for the aging.

She spoke on mental health issues among the elderly and the growing amount of research into it. She said having little control over a “rapid increase of change,” such as losing a loved one, can affect one’s well-being and physical and cognitive abilities. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and loneliness in older people.

The “good news,” Milton said, is there are resources to help one’s well-being such as social interaction and sense of purpose and meaning.

‘Getting Better with Age’

The afternoon panel discussion was called “Getting Better with Age.” Koby again facilitated the panel, this time with participants Janet Bolling from Home Health United, Sara Koenig from the Wisconsin Bureau of Aging and Disability Resources, and Dr. Janice Singles from UW Health.

Bolling talked about chronic disease management and education. She said a chronic disease is defined as lasting three months or more. She said they cannot be prevented and can develop over time, they can be hereditary, and they can result from damaging behaviors and situations such as drug use, a sedentary lifestyle, poor environment, or poor nutrition.

Bolling said the more people are aware of what leads to chronic diseases and how to care for them, the more they can take advantage of home care and not spend more time in the hospital.

Koenig spoke about nutrition and well-being programs in the state of Wisconsin. “Sometimes people aren’t aware of the services out there for older people in the community,” she said.

She talked about two programs -- Meals on Wheels and the Senior Dining Program. “The goal of our programs is to provide tools that are necessary for older people to stay in the community and out of institutionalized settings as long as possible to promote independence and allow older adults to choose where they live.”

Singles spoke about chronic and acute pain. “Millions of people suffer from acute or chronic pain every year” in the United States, Singles said, which is more than diabetes or cancer. She called it a silent epidemic . . . many people suffer in silence.”

Instead of drugs, she offered the following suggestions for helping reduce pain: relaxation, moving around more, focusing on people outside of yourself and having a purpose outside of yourself, and having an optimistic attitude.

‘Elder Law’

One breakout session was presented by Brenda R. Haskins, from Haskins Short, LLC, speaking on elder law. She talked about the importance of having a health care power of attorney.

“A health care power of attorney allows you to set up in advance who’s going to make health care decisions when you’re incapacitated,” she said.

Topics to discuss include whether to use a respirator when incapacitated, whether to donate organs, the place where you’d prefer to die, and understanding a Do Not Resuscitate order.

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