Employee Spotlights

Susan Eichensehr unlocks ‘bigger world’ for seniors through fitness



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Beloved Series

Real stories as told by people who live, work and volunteer at Presbyterian Homes & Services (PHS).

Susan’s story

Marvella residents flock to Susan Eichensehr’s fitness classes. In part to improve their balance, strength, endurance and flexibility, but mostly because the classes are fun! Susan shares her “why” in working with older adults, and God’s leading in her life.

Helping older adults ‘bear fruit’

I firmly believe God loves us, and we are called to love others. When I look at what God has done for me in my own life and the people He has placed in my life … it is absolutely my privilege to extend that same love to other people.

I want to help older adults live with strong bodies and minds so they can share their life experiences with other people, leaving a legacy for their grandkids, for their families, and others.

One of my favorite Psalms says, “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green,” (Psalm 92:14 – NIV).

Susan has a graduate degree in clinical exercise/physiology. It was through an internship in cardiac rehabilitation that she first began connecting with an older population and decided that she wanted to work with this specific population.

Understanding seniors’ ‘why?’

When you have people who may have walkers, canes, or are starting to be physically challenged, and you show them what they can still do, and tie that into something important—like their grandkids, like their families, like serving – then they get to live this beautiful chapter of life with passion.

Every single fitness class I lead, I tie some form of “why” to what we are doing. People don’t do “fitness” to stand on their toes; they do it so they can be independent, hit the river trail, go to the dog park, lift a laundry basket, get on their own coats and seatbelts, or golf, run, cycle, or ski. I always tie fitness to what is important to them.

One of my goals is inclusion. There’s not a person here who doesn’t have some sort of story in their body – whether it’s a disease diagnosis or pain: a [bad] shoulder, a broken or replaced hip, neck issues, or back issues. Yet, there is still a way to physically move and feel empowered, and when you feel empowered, your world gets bigger.

I am blessed on Monday morning when my alarm goes off. I know exactly where I’m going with a beaming heart and smile, helping older adults live their best lives. God is using me to that end.

Building relationships through fitness

As Susan walks past the bistro each morning on the way to her office, she sees and hears residents excitedly discussing upcoming fitness classes.

To see residents’ eagerness, preparation, and the fellowship that flows out of that—they come in pods and in little cohorts to class—tells me physical movement has become a vehicle for relationship building.

Then, during class, the laughter, the hoots, the hollers, the support for each other, is great. After class, I hear, “Oh, my gosh, I did this today; I couldn’t do that before,” or “Wow, that was really hard, and I did it anyway,” or “I haven’t worked that hard in a long time; it felt great.” To watch that unfold is just glorious.

Watch Susan lead a fitness class at Marvella

Following God’s prompting

While living in Chicago and leading a program for those with Parkinson’s disease, Susan was invited by a friend to join a weeklong mission trip to Baja California, a state in Mexico. At the trip’s conclusion, Susan shared some observations with the mission administrator on how volunteers might be better used. Little did she know that God had something bigger in mind.

As soon as I got home, I had this sense that God was saying, “You’re going down to Mexico, and you’re going now.”

I rattled off all the reasons this was the most ridiculous idea I’d ever heard. My son was a Marine on the East Coast. I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t like tacos. I don’t know how to work with kids who have been through trauma. I told God this was a really dumb idea and went to bed … but God wouldn’t leave me alone.

The minute I said yes, my church committed to sponsor me. Within 12 hours, my son called me and said, “I just got transferred to Miramar, San Diego.” I literally started crying and laughing.

I don’t think God tells us what to do; I think we get prompts, and we get calls, and then we get affirmation that it was right.

Serving abused children in Mexico

A lot of what I did working with people in Chicago living with Parkinson’s I transferred to working with the children who had been victimized and abused. I met them where they were.
I used my boxing skills to help them mentally fight back. We started running to help them let go of their aggression and their anger. I used fitness training to show them what they were capable of doing.

Off to Minnesota

What began as a six-month commitment to the mission in Mexico morphed into five years of service. During her work at the mission, Susan built a soccer field, prepared girls for college or secondary education, and developed a new program for utilizing volunteers.

One day I sensed God telling me, “You’re going to Minnesota!” I told God I thought that was a dumb idea, but again, God wouldn’t leave me alone.

I called my brother – who lives in Minnesota – and said, “I don’t know why, but I’m moving to Minnesota.” Two days later, my brother was diagnosed with cancer.
I used to question God all the time. “Why are you doing this?” “What’s going on?”

I don’t question Him anymore. Every single thing He’s prompted me to do that I’ve obeyed has worked out in these most amazing, life giving, life affirming experiences. Who am I to ever question why He prompts us? When I’ve taken a leap of faith, I’ve been supported and carried.

Connecting with PHS

Through a friend of her brother, Susan first heard about PHS (Presbyterian Homes & Services). Two additional “random” encounters with PHS, including a conversation with a 90-year-young Pres Homes resident, came up as Susan was deliberating her next step.

So, I looked up Presbyterian Homes & Services online. When I found it was a faith-based organization, I got ‘God bumps’ all over. I had thought, “How in God’s green earth am I going to go from serving in a ministry to going back into a secular world in the fitness industry?” God just basically took a big ginormous flashlight and said, “This is how we are going to do it; all you need to do is pull the trigger with PHS.”

Helping seniors live their story

Susan teaching a full class

I love working with seniors who are zealous about life. They are the best spokespeople for their population and generation. They teach us what we are capable of.

There’s a hero in every single person at Marvella [a PHS senior living community in Saint Paul, Minn.] I am actually the one being mentored and taught. The people who live here teach me how to live a foundational life.

When you serve older adults and you do get plugged into the stories, you realize how much you don’t know. Every individual has a story. I get to check out a book every day.

I get to show residents, coworkers and others what it looks like to be a beloved child of God through my words, actions, face and pace – especially in slowing down and being “present” with them. I get to represent what Christ’s love looks like. I try to honor each person the same way I would want my own parents to be loved, valued and cared for.

Interested in a PHS career?

Get started enriching the lives of older adults, working at a PHS community near you. We always have a wide range of positions open in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, for a variety of careers. Whether you’re starting out, at mid-career level or looking for a post-retirement career, we encourage you to apply to join our team at preshomes.org/careers and follow our blog.

More in the Beloved series:
Pastor Vince takes a leap of faith with Presbyterian Homes & Services
‘We’re a bond’: A conversation with Delores and Kathy
Avery Kerney finds a nourishing purpose



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