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Lanier reflects on new position at Council on Aging

Editor’s note: This version corrects that Marci Bergren, Val Clikeman and Heather Winter are employees at North Central Senior Citizens Center.

Hill County Council on Aging has a new director in Bill Lanier, who took the position late last year, and he said he has some possible improvements he'd like to make in its services.

Lanier, originally from Great Falls, has lived on the Hi-Line for decades, working for Montana State University-Northern and Blaine County in various roles, and, most recently at Havre Job Service Workforce Center as a workforce consultant.

He said he's been interested in the position with the Council on Aging, which handles services for senior citizens in the county, for a few years and applied when it opened last year, and it's been an enjoyable learning experience since he was hired late in 2022.

"Three months, but there are still many days where I feel brand new," he said.

Lanier said he didn't know how heavily Havre's North Central Senior Center relied upon volunteers and it's been interesting adjusting to a workforce largely made up of them.

He said it is a different dynamic than his previous workplaces, but the great thing about volunteers is that they are there because they really want to be, which creates an enthusiastic environment.

He said there are many volunteers and employees who give a lot of their time at the center and many of them have been their long enough that they gave him invaluable advice and guidance, particularly empoyee Marci Bergren, who has been at the center for years and was its interim director on top of her regular duties before he got there.

Lanier said she saves seniors hundreds if not thousands of dollars every year by helping them enroll in Medicare and making sure they get the proper coverage.

He also said they have events and programs to help seniors with their taxes which is excellent especially with tax season coming up soon.

Among the many employees he mentioned was Val Clikeman, who he said has been an integral part of the center's operation, especially recently.

"She's the glue that's helped keep the place together these last few years," he said.

He said the center has lost a few people recently and they've had to shuffle positions around a bit, but their signature programs and events, like Meal on Wheels, have continued to run well despite the difficult road conditions because of the devotion of the center's volunteers, most of whom are seniors themselves.

He said the center continues to be a worthwhile gathering place for seniors in the area, with their weekly games of bingo and pinochle, along with their daily $5 meals, which he said anyone regardless of age is welcome to come to, for food and company.

"Some of them, their whole day revolves around coming here," he said. "It's the highlight of their day, and I love being a part of that."

Lanier said the center's gift shop is open to everyone as well.

He said he's also really proud of a lot of the center's ongoing programs, like their partnership with Down Under Fitness that many seniors use.

Lanier said while taking over the center has been a big change, he sees remarkable parallels between it and Northern's Student Union Building, which operates similarly, albeit catering to a younger age group.

He said some of the staff he used to work with are now regular users of the center, which has also been interesting to see.

One thing he's had to get used to is working with the organization's budget, something he said he's still learning how to do, but he said Hill County Treasurer Sandy Brown has been extremely helpful to him as well as other people at the county.

He said he has a good relationship with the Hill County Commission as well, which is also a resource for him.

Lanier said on those occasions where he is getting frustrated with the budget or something else there is always someone at the center, volunteer or user who cheers him up.

He said he feels like in a lot of jobs people only ever get feedback when something is wrong or someone is angry, but working with seniors is different, and he hears a lot more good than bad.

He said they tend to go out of their way to talk about all the things they like about the center and when he does get negative feedback he always tries to get specifics so they can address issues more effectively and make necessary changes.

Lanier said he also tries to make a habit of talking to every volunteer and employee at the center every morning, which he said he hopes makes him more approachable when there is an issue.

Despite all of the good things going on at the center, he said, they do have ongoing problems that he wants to try to address, most of them revolving around a lack of space.

He said the number of senior citizens is going up, and the center just doesn't have enough room to effectively cater to all of them and store the items they need to while still providing enough space to work effectively.

He said there is scant parking at the center and while people can park across the street, the Havre winters make for treacherous roads that can be really dangerous for seniors to walk across.

Lanier said he parks there to free up a spot for users, falling more than once as a result, and he's not the only one.

He said they are putting out feelers for a new space, but there's just not a lot of it in the area and the issues caused by a lack of space are going to be difficult to address.

He said the Rudyard Senior Center has problems of its own with its facility and the Hill County Commission is looking into what can be done on that front as well.

Lanier also talked about a common problem the center tries to deal with, scams.

Unfortunately, he said, there are a lot of less-than-scrupulous people out there who prey on seniors, and the center is always making an effort to keep people informed, especially when it comes to Social Security and medicare.

He said he wanted to take the opportunity to remind everyone that Social Security and medicare always communicate through letters, not phone calls, so if anyone gets a call from them it is almost certainly fake.

However, Lanier said, there are things they can improve even with the ongoing space issue.

He said he's trying to get the center geared up for extending its operations to 4 or 4:30 p.m. instead of 3 in the next three months, which he said he thinks would be very beneficial to the seniors.

He said they are also trying to improve their data collection and better track the services that are being used, which will help them make further improvements.

Lanier also said he wants to try to get ahead of the local senior population increasing and bolstering programs like Meal on Wheels, which will likely see increasing demand in the coming years.

He said they're also looking to add more activities and given the amazing job Heather Winter, another employee at the center, does with the ones they currently have, he thinks they can do it.

He said he would also like to get more of the current senior population interested in coming to the center, which has seen a drop in attendance since the pandemic hit.

Lanier said it has definitely gotten better in the past year, but he doesn't know if it will ever be quite the same, which isn't really surprising.

He said people who were forced to be home for so long changed their habits and changing back doesn't always happen.

He also said people have recently been asking about donations of things like medical equipment and he said the center is always open to people who want to contribute items and encouraged them to get in touch.


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