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Health and Wellness series: Let the spirit shine through

If you want to get an answer that makes sense, you have to ask the right question.

I set out to do a story on the spiritual and emotional path to staying young.

But a better question is, how do we stay connected and vibrant and growing, no matter what our age?

And if we feel unconnected, dull and stagnant, how do we change that?

A strong spiritual base can help people get through the tough times as they age, said Vicki Marthaler, chaplain at Emmanuel Community in Detroit Lakes.

"Sometimes if people are struggling with their health and loss -- and it can be not just death, but the loss of mobility or home, sometimes even your mind -- a person can have a crisis of faith, and that emptiness and despair that goes with it," she said.

"People that are grounded in faith, that have a spiritual connection, will ride the crest of that wave, and are more apt to come to a place of peace, of strength."

But spirituality is more than a church or a religion, she added. "It is hope and peace and joy and contentment."

And one of the best ways to find some of that for yourself is to let yourself open up and connect with people.

"I see us being created to be people of community," Marthaler said. She believes God works through people, which is the spiritual side of community.

"You want to kind of stay connected to your community and to your family," agreed Karen Lenius, Becker County coordinator on aging.

"Emotionally and mental health-wise, if people are prepared and they are connected, it helps as they age."

Having a workable, realistic plan for retirement can directly correlate to emotional well-being down the road, Lenius said.

"Have a financial plan. Have a medical plan. Have a legal plan -- who will make decisions on your behalf?" she said.

"When you retire, where do you want to live? How do you want to live?"

More people are retiring while still in debt, or are still paying on a mortgage. "You might want to re-think that whole plan," she said.

Situational depression can be the result of financial problems at any age, and that's true of the elderly as well.

"A lot of people age without appropriate thought to financial considerations," Lenius said. "If you turn 65 and think the government is just going to care for you, it's not going to happen. Everybody needs to care for themselves ... Make your 50s as productive as possible."

One of the best things you can do for your emotional health is to volunteer. It helps people stay connected, to feel like they are a contributing member of society -- and they are needed, Lenius said. "There's not one program in the city or the county that could survive without volunteers."

Staying connected with a church community is also important as people age, Lenius said.

Those who don't have a church community can stay connected through the public library, adult basic education, travel, or by volunteering with hospice, the United Way, the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, she suggested.

And for those who split from their church community years ago, often for traumatic reasons, churches have changed, and it's never too late to reconcile.

That's one thing Marthaler, the nursing home chaplain, tries to do with residents at Emmanuel.

"This has been an opportunity for people to reconnect with their church," she said.

Years ago, a couple's divorce could mean in effect a divorce from the church, and suicides were sometimes buried outside the churchyard walls.

Things happened that soured people on their church -- Marthaler estimates that about 20 percent of the residents at Emmanuel had a falling out with their church at some point, and still carry that emotional burden.

Her No. 1 goal is to reconnect people to their churches, but she also offers the constant spiritual message that "they are loved and they are people of value, people of worth."

Other paths to emotional well-being include healthy doses of laughter -- Marthaler says one thing people never seem to lose is their sense of humor.

And don't be shy about telling your story.

"If you give a person a chance to tell their life stories, it empowers them," she said.