It was a sweet idea — one that had the potential to make seniors at Crow Wing County assisted living facilities feel a little less lonely.

Paula Armagost, a licensed social worker at Crow Wing County Community Services, and other Aging Coalition members came up with a baking competition for county assisted living facilities.

“Now more than ever we need to have fun and engage our residents ... not only within their own setting, but with other assisted living communities as well. We hope you join us!” read the invitation to assisted living facilities by the coalition’s senior services collaborative task group.

Facilities in the bake-off gathered their residents’ favorite dessert recipes, which were narrowed down to three recipes per assisted living facility. The winner of the overall competition amongst the facilities would be dubbed the “Sweet Treat King” or “Sweet Treat Queen.”

“They baked them, made samples, and had everyone in the assisted living taste-test them and then vote, so people were engaging, they were participating, they were giving their opinions, they were interacting with staff and each other,” Armagost said of the Aging Coalition contest.

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The Aging Coalition is part of Crow Wing Energized. Membership in the coalition includes 25 people representing 16 home and community-based organizations who provide services to people 65 and older living in Crow Wing County.

“Our goal is to have providers engaging with each other, and working together and collaborating together to provide services the best way they can to the elderly that they serve,” Armagost said of the coalition’s senior services collaborative task group.

The Aging Coalition's purpose is “to develop and promote health and wellness options for the aging population in Crow Wing County.” The coalition aims to “be the driving force that explores and implements strategies that address the social, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the aging population, their caregivers and families,” according to Crow Wing Energized’s website.

“Primarily the last couple of years it’s been mostly provider education in the way of, like, active shooter training, things related to legal issues in the elderly — that sort of thing,” Armagost said of the senior services collaborative task group. “But when COVID turned everything upside down, we decided to focus on how to help assisted living facilities to creatively combat the isolation that this pandemic has brought to an already sort of sheltered population and that’s seniors.”

The Aging Coalition supplied a gift basket to each of the four assisted-living facilities in the bake-off and the gift baskets were awarded to the winning residents whose recipes were voted the favorite by residents of each of the winners’ respective assisted living facility.

The four winning recipes from Good Samaritan Society-Woodland; Carefree Living, Brainerd; Edgewood in Brainerd; and Edgewood in Baxter were emailed to all the participating assisted living facilities, and their dietary staffs made more samples, according to Armagost.

“And, again, the whole facility was able to taste-test, to give their opinions and ultimately vote, and we had a grand prize winner … and all of the facilities spoke about, ‘It was fun, it was different,’” Armagost said.

Betti Labs was the grand prize winner. The 73-year-old is a resident at Edgewood in Brainerd. Barb Albright is the executive director of Edgewood in Brainerd and Baxter.

“She got the award. She was absolutely tickled pink about it,” Albright said. “We posted it on Facebook. I think all the residents enjoyed it.”

The grand prize-winning recipe from Labs was her cherry meringue dessert, which was an old family recipe, according to Albright. The winning grand prize basket was delivered right before Thanksgiving.

“What we did was we put it out there for the residents to turn in their favorite recipes. And then what we did is have our dining crew make each one of them. And then we had the residents vote on it,” Albright said.

Armagost said she has received positive feedback from the four assisted living facilities about the bake-off, which took about six weeks from start to finish.

“They got to compete, they got to not only engage within their communities, but the assisted livings got to know each other. And pretty soon, they were exchanging recipes,” Armagost said. “It was really just an old-fashioned bake-off. A dessert competition was what it really was.”

Armagost said after the holidays she plans to brainstorm more ideas on how to combat senior isolation.

“I would very much be interested in connecting the seniors with the school system, whether it be through some sort of a pen pal, or maybe a middle school English class might be assigned a pen pal per student, and they could kind of communicate in the written form,” Armagost said.

Whatever the idea, it will have an intergenerational component to it, Armagost promised.

“That’s a big loss for a lot of the seniors in assisted living is that ability to engage with family and grandkids and great-grandkids for the last, you know, 10 months,” Armagost said.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.