By Ryan Gueningsman
DELANO, MN Short of being called a “pioneer” of the modern senior center concept, Gail (Motzko) Sinkel has been through a lot in her 30 years of management of one of the area’s finest facilities.
Thirty years ago when Sinkel began her tenure as the then-part-time director of the Delano Senior Center, the concept of a senior center had slowly begun to evolve.
“I came at a very, very good time because the sky was the limit,” Sinkel, who retired in June, said. “You could do whatever you wanted to do, and the seniors were very anxious to get programs going, so it was a perfect time for me to start.”
When Sinkel took the helm in conjunction with Senior Community Services Aug. 16, 1984, the center in Delano had been open for about a year. At the time, it was a new center with club members planning all the activities.
In the late 1970s until Sinkel began at the Delano Senior Center, she had spent time with Augustana in Minneapolis. When she and husband, Craig, had daughter, Leah, Gail realized she wanted to be closer to home.
“This opportunity came up, and it was perfect,” Sinkel said.
Through Senior Community Services, she began working four hours a day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., five days a week.
“In the late 70s and early 80s, senior centers were just starting,” Sinkel said. “It was the whole new era of keeping people in their homes as long as possible rather than moving them to nursing homes.
She said initially she had a lot of help from Senior Community Services, and also worked with local clubs and the center’s advisory board to keep the center expanding and changing.
“It was a good time for me, and I think a good time for Delano,” Sinkel said. “Delano was really ahead of the game in senior services. The community was very supportive.”
In June 2006, the center celebrated its 25th anniversary, with a large program and presentation at the new home in the current city facility.
“We tried to get as many people who were available and connected to come back and celebrate,” Sinkel recalled. From the original group in 1984, Sinkel said Mildred Shrode and Harlan Zabel both were able to attend.
“A lot of people have come and gone, and that can be a very difficult part of the job,” she admitted. “Change is inevitable for everybody, but as you get to know people and they crawl into your heart, it’s always very difficult when that person passes away.”
Sinkel said the resiliency of the seniors who come to the center is what has helped her with a position many could view as challenging.
“It is going to a lot of wakes and funerals and sending out a lot of sympathy cards they become more than just clients they’re friends,” she said. “I guess you just have to continue on not that those people aren’t missed. Life continues on, but that is one part of this job you know you’re going to have to face just because of the age of your clients.”
Planning activities and events that people of any age would want to partake in is something Sinkel has always tried to do, rather than planning activities for seniors specifically.
She said the history of these people and what they’ve endured has led to a great appreciation of them.
“When I think of what some of these people have been through, from wars to being raised differently . . . and some have had wonderful lives. They all are different and are better people for their experiences.”
She said the seniors have empathy for each other, and she admitted she is going to miss that.
And, the fun.
“Oh, do we laugh,” Sinkel said. “We have a lot of fun. We’re called the happy side of the building city hall staff comes to the center anytime they need a smile. We try to create a lot of joyful moments so that people can come here and feel welcomed and happy and feel a part of things.”
With her recent retirement from the center, Sinkel said she plans to “just let each day happen at first.”
“I don’t want to tie myself down to too many things,” she said. “I just kind of want to be available to help people. There are so many needs out in this community.”
Craig is not retiring just yet, but Gail said they plan to take a lot of day trips and spending time with their grandson, Brayden, who will be 4 years old Aug. 1, along with Leah and son-in-law Mark Petersen.
“I’m not much of a worldly traveler, but I can be coerced into it,” she said with a laugh.
She also plans to reconnect with old co-workers, friends, and “people that have sort of been put on hold due to careers and families.”
“I’m not falling off the face of the earth,” she said. “I was born in Delano. I was raised in Delano. I started a family in Delano, I worked in Delano. They’re going to see me around I’m not going anywhere.”