Making Connections: Lessons Learned in Rural Aging Partner Engagement

With the advent of social media and such tools as Skype, WebEx, and GoToMeeting, one would imagine connecting with anyone in any setting – urban, rural, or otherwise – would be a matter of simply pressing a button and letting technology do the work. 

And we have found, as we round out Year 1 of Empire Health Foundation’s Rural Aging Services Program, one would be wrong.

Not only is information infrastructure in rural areas less-than-robust (see map below; arrows point to some examples of partner locations), but many of the people and organizations with whom we are looking to partner might not adopt tools like those mentioned above even if the infrastructure were there.  We have heard the phrase “I do/(s)he does not use email” more than once, and a good deal of senior service-related work happens ad hoc in the basements of churches and other community buildings, making home phone numbers (yes, land lines) a common piece of contact information.  Moreover, dire straits for nonprofits in rural areas can mean that Internet is the first thing to go, or that they never acquired it in the first place.

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Making connections in these communities requires a couple of changes in practice and habit that go a long way toward establishing strong relationships with rural senior service partners.

#1 Windshield Time

In-person meetings in the communities with whom we are working were the key to successful engagement in these rural towns.  We quickly learned in Year 1 that rather than ask a group of potential partners – who are often the busy “wearers of many hats” in their communities – to travel hours each way for a meeting in the city, we must go to them.

More than a matter of mere convenience, making the journey to a rural community is an indication of a deeper investment in our partnership with them.  It says, “Yes, I am willing to spend hours in the car to see your town in action,” and “Yes, I want to get the full experience of what your community has to offer.” Many of the seniors we engage with regularly have been living in their towns for at least 50 years, if not for their whole lives.  They are intimately familiar with the evolution their towns have experienced over time and with the rich histories there. 

For example, I learned recently that Garfield, WA, a farming community of about 600 people, was a center of agricultural innovation in the early 20th century.  My tour guide, a lifelong resident of Garfield, informed me, “You know, this is where they invented the harvester reel for harvesting pea pods and the like? In the 30’s, these two guys working for J.E.  Love Company invented it, right here in Garfield.” (The patent number is US 2024735 A, if you’re interested in looking it up.)

Showing these folks our investment in learning about their communities, as they experience them today and as they have experienced them over the course of a lifetime, is absolutely essential to building a strong partnership.

#2 Adapting for Partners

Sometimes a technology solution can actually become a barrier to communication with rural partners.  During our recent application cycle, board members from a senior center in Newport, WA – the seat of Pend Oreille County, located some 47 miles northeast of Spokane – emailed us in regard to our online application system, which they were trying to access from their home computers.  “Unfortunately, Hospitality House has only a very old computer and no internet,” they informed us.  “We are attempting to complete this grant application on a notebook and a home PC.” Unreliable Internet connectivity made applying online quite burdensome for them, so we sent along an editable document for them to complete off-line and email back for me to transcribe into the online system.

While this situation was unique, it serves as another indicator of our investment in potential partners.  Being willing to change our approach, especially if it is a bit of extra time commitment, shows that we value their contributions as expressions of a community voice that we might not otherwise have heard.

#3 Hearing Seniors’ Voices

Interestingly enough, one of the most effective means by which I have gained insight into the lives of rural seniors themselves is through handwritten correspondence and testimonials for programs we are looking to support.  Strong connections with the folks being served give us an idea of the roles played by programs in the lives of “our Seniors,” as many partners put it.  Consider, for example, the following excerpt from a testimonial for an exercise class for seniors in Curlew, WA (population 118):

Transcript: “I am a 75 year old female.  Our exercise class is great for many reasons.  I want to be in good shape in 10 years.  Will only be able to reach that goal by doing.  It gives us a reason to get out of bed.  Seeing friends, laughing, singing, and sharing when ones are in need.  Thank you for continuing to support us.”

Transcript: “I am a 75 year old female.  Our exercise class is great for many reasons.  I want to be in good shape in 10 years.  Will only be able to reach that goal by doing.  It gives us a reason to get out of bed.  Seeing friends, laughing, singing, and sharing when ones are in need.  Thank you for continuing to support us.”

This note made it to us only after an email introduction via another EHF staff member, several rounds of phone tag between the rural aging team and the partner, and three consultations and revisions of the proposal.  Without demonstrated commitment to building our connections with the communities we are working with, we would not have this sort of insight.


The key to working with senior-oriented partners in rural areas is demonstrating an investment in your relationship with them. Time, patience, and attention to the various community voices that arise – in whatever medium – are critical to building strong relationships with any partner, but all the more so, we’ve found, when working to serve seniors in rural areas.

Meet Matt Layton, October's Featured Board Member

We are excited to continue our monthly series highlighting our Board of Directors!  This month we are delighted to feature our current Board Chair Matt Layton.  Take a look at his interview below!
And in case you missed it, you can check out our first Board Member interview with Sue Lani Madsen here


EHF is a new chance, a new opportunity. We got attention at the state and national level once they saw our outcomes, and others see how we can help accomplish their visions.
— Matt Layton

Who are you and what do you do?

I am a psychiatrist MD with a PhD in pharmacology; I like to say “I got my MD to put people on medications and my PhD to take them off!”  I am passionate about mental health, and I play different roles in the community in this capacity, including research and teaching roles.  I am a full-time Washington State University employee, as well as the medical director for the opioid treatment program at Spokane Regional Health District, where we currently serve over 650 patients.  My research interests are in the areas of smoking cessation and alcohol and methamphetamine addictions. 

Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I’m from Kansas.  I met my wife, who is from Boston, at Kansas University in Lawrence.  We spent six years in Seattle before we had kids, and now we have three – ages 14, 11 and 8.  We joke that Spokane is where the Midwest meets the Northwest.   I did my undergraduate medical degree at Kansas University, and my residency at the University of Washington in Seattle.

One of the most powerful things that has cemented me in the Spokane medical community happened when our now 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia seven years ago.  Judy Felgenhauer, who was my fellow when I was an intern at Children’s in Seattle 15 years prior, was part of our daughter’s medical team here in Spokane when she was diagnosed.  I knew that my family was in great hands with her and with the team, and my daughter got wonderful medical care for three years.  She is in now in remission for four years.

What is your favorite book?

Catcher in the Rye byJD Salinger.  While I was never kicked out of private school, I did get kicked out of advanced science in middle school, and one of the best things that ever happened to me is that I was put into wood shop instead.  I have spent 16 years working on our 1915 farmhouse – another passion of mine.

The thing I like about the book is that Holden has a rebel aspect, but also cares about others.  That is what I want to do.

How long have you been a member of the EHF Board?

I’ve been on the EHF board for five years.   I was brought on because of my mental health expertise with a focus on the strategic opportunity to integrate medical with mental health services, which has continued to grow.  I first got involved in the Finance Committee, and have served as Treasurer, Vice Chair and now Chair. 

What attracted you to the Empire Health Foundation Board of Directors?

When I first came to Spokane, I was having meetings with Empire Health Services providers regarding mental health issues, which I had already been working on for 11 years.  I was watching very closely as EHF, a significant new financial resource, was formed.  When I was approached, I had a sense of relief that what I was seeing as important to the health of the region also resonated with the founding board members.  

What most excites you about our work and mission?

That what we are doing now aligns with founding board members’ recognition that mental health and addiction are significant health determinants.

Has anything surprised you about Empire Health Foundation?  If so, what? 

I was surprised at how rapidly we grew!  We have partnered with various funders and local agencies to leverage our endowment and get return beyond our wildest dreams, achieving 10-year goals in less than 2 years.  We found that people needed this foundation to step in and set aside turf for greater health of our region.  EHF is a new chance, a new opportunity.  We got attention at the state and national level once they saw our outcomes, and others see how we can help accomplish their visions. 

Finally, when you have an out-of-town guest visit, what is your “must do” in your community?

The same thing I do with my children.  We go downtown, and take a long walk in Riverfront Park.  The kids love to ride the carrousel.  Then we grab a bite to eat somewhere, and head to Boo Radley’s. 

Update from the Executive Team

In addition to its philanthropic mission, EHF has had the important responsibility of managing and winding down over $200 million in trailing assets and liabilities as part of the hospital acquisition transaction that created EHF.  The most significant responsibility consisted of overseeing the Empire Health Services Defined Benefit Pension Plan (“DB Plan”).  The DB Plan, which has been closed (frozen) to new participants and to benefit accruals since March 2007, at one point covered more than 3,000 participants.

EHF is pleased to announce a significant milestone in the stewardship of the DB Plan.  After extensive due diligence following the receipt of governmental approval for termination of the DB Plan, EHF has selected Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company to be the annuity provider to fund all DB Plan benefits and to provide related administrative services.  As a result, participants’ benefits will be funded by a recognized insurance provider with significant financial assets and experience serving retirement plans.

With an estimated 95% of trailing assets and liabilities wound down to date, the EHF team and board look forward to increasing EHF’s focus upon achieving measurable, sustainable health improvements in Eastern Washington.

Better Health Together Awarded $307,000 to Continue Health Plan Enrollment Assistance

Congratulations to our subsidiary Better Health Together on securing a two-year, $307,000 grant to continue their partnership with the Washington State Health Benefit Exchange assisting individuals and families enroll in health insurance through the Washington Health Plan Finder!  Better Health Together's In-Person Assister Network has been one of the most impactful programs that EHF has supported, helping achieve a radical reduction in the uninsured rate in our region.  The In-Person Assister Network successfully enrolled over 84,000 individuals throughout its 14-county region from 2013 to 2014, and Spokane's uninsured rate has dropped from 13% in 2013 to just 5% in 2015.

We are delighted to continue support the efforts of our 150 on-the-ground navigators to make sure that every person in our community has health insurance
— Alison Carl White, Executive Director, Better Health Together

We are excited for Better Health Together to continue building on the success of the In-Person Assister Network with this continued partnership, and congratulations again to the wonderful team behind the work!

Visit and to learn more.

Spokane Philanthropic Awards Registration Open!

We at EHF are delighted to sponsor the 2015 Spokane Philanthropic Awards in partnership with the Journal of Business, Spokane Emerging Leaders Society, and Compassionate Spokane.  The Spokane Philanthropic Awards recognizes and celebrates the many acts of compassion and philanthropy occurring in our community, with awards in the following four categories:

  • Philanthropic Corporation of the Year (51+ employees)
  • Philanthropic Small Business of the Year
  • Philanthropic Organization of the Year
  • Outstanding Philanthropist(s) 
  • Outstanding Young Philanthropist(s) (up to age 21)

Wednesday, October 21 from 11:30 AM to 1:00 pm

the Lincoln Center
1316 N. Lincoln St.
Spokane, WA 99201

Register for the 2015 Spokane Philanthropic Awards below!

EHF is proud to sponsor this community event in partnership with the following organizations: