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Health & Wellness in Retirement Homes

As Canada’s west coast was gearing up for the energy and excitement of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Linda Bartel, the activities director at Shannon Oaks retirement community had an idea. In order to promote healthy, active living for the residents of this independent living community in Victoria, British Columbia, she would co-ordinate and host a mini-Olympics equipped with competitive games, medal ceremonies and an opening and closing celebration. “We divided the whole community into six teams and each had to choose its own captain and team name,” she explained just after the event’s wrap-up. “This program not only engaged the residents both mentally and physically, but also inspired a sense of community.”

Activities included darts, ping-pong, Nintendo Wii bowling, card games and more. The focus was health and wellness—a week full of activity and friendly competition. “We had more than 65 per cent participation, and another 20 per cent were there the whole time cheering the others on,” says Bartel. “This was truly the most involved we’ve ever seen our residents.”

The most popular competition of the week was the walking marathon, which stretched over three days and required team members to pass around a pedometer and clock their steps. From early morning to late afternoon, one member from each team would have to be moving constantly, and even when someone couldn’t walk any further, they would move on the spot in order to continue adding steps, Bartel explains. The spirit and energy at Shannon Oaks that week was palpable and led to an Olympic fervour that carried on among residents as they followed and cheered on the athletes at the 2010 Winter Games.

In many active living retirement communities, creativity such as Bartel’s is used to inspire health and wellness programming. At the other end of the country, the Origin Evergreen active lifestyle community in Mississauga, Ontario, also places a huge emphasis on promoting a healthy lifestyle for its residents.

By 10 a.m. on a Thursday, the wellness centre here is already abuzz with activity. A few female residents are having their hair cut and styled, while others are enjoying esthetic services such as manicures, pedicures and facials. The spa is reminiscent of something one might find in a boutique hotel, with stunning, modern treatment rooms and a full menu of services.

Next to the spa is the saltwater pool, where a group of seniors is participating in a water walking class. The program is designed to physically assist participants with balance and mobility, but it’s also a great way to socialize in a fun and non-competitive environment. The music of Ella Fitzgerald is being piped through the loudspeakers, and all of the participants are laughing and smiling.

At the front of the class is Harry Haydock, an 81-year-old resident of Origin and a retired geography teacher. On land, Haydock moves slowly with the assistance of a walker, but in the pool he’s buoyant and light on his feet. “I really look forward to this class,” says Haydock, who used to be an avid swimmer. “You get into the water and suddenly your legs are like they used to be—it’s fantastic.”

Haydock spent the earlier part of his retirement travelling around the world on cruises, and as a result, he feels right at home in this Origin community. With a jam-packed roster of games, activities and programs all focused on health and wellness, there is never a shortage of things to do.

According to Origin’s life-enrichment co-ordinator, Gina Filice, the key to healthy, happy residents is a suite of activities that holistically address the mind, body and spirit. “Wellness programs can help prolong life, decrease isolation and increase socialization,” she explains. “With each activity we offer, there are physical or mental benefits as well as a social aspect, which is very important at this stage of life.”

Programs such as candlelight yoga, meditation, acupuncture, Nordic pole walking and glee club are just a few of the options that fill the Origin monthly calendar. Like other retirement and active living communities, Origin focuses on developing a schedule that is resident-driven and accessible. While many of the pool and movement-studio classes, which Filice teaches, foster physical development, the pace and tone of each class can be adjusted to meet the participants’ needs. And the schedule is constantly being updated and adapted based on regular meetings with residents.

“Our philosophy is that seniors should be able to embrace an active lifestyle filled with opportunities they may not have had time for when they were busy working and raising families,” says Origin’s community relations manager, Sherry Cain. “This kind of retirement experience is long overdue in our society.”

The trend toward health and wellness programming in retirement communities is spreading across the country as residences begin to incorporate classes and activities that take a holistic approach to personal betterment. Nicole Bergman, Amica Mature Lifestyles’ corporate manager of wellness and vitality, explains this trend: “As the medical model is being challenged on the grounds that it is one-dimensional (people are defined by their disability or disease rather than their entire person), I believe we are seeing a shift away from this belief system and a movement toward a holistic, multi-dimensional lifestyle model of wellness.”

As a result, residents of Amica’s Whitby, Ontario, location are offered a variety of scheduled activities that encourage physical and emotional well-being. The most popular activities include Zumba Gold, a senior-friendly Latin dance program, and mPOWER, a personalized strength-training program. Amica also focuses on keeping the mind sharp by offering regular computer classes and tutorials. With access to a fully equipped business centre, residents are given the opportunity to maintain existing computer skills or develop a new-found interest in using the Internet and other forms of electronic communication.

“Although wellness is not synonymous with health, the two do complement one another,” explains Bergman. “Many people who are focused on leading a physically and socially active lifestyle enjoy a higher degree of health and wellness because they reduce the risks associated with sedentary living and also benefit from the richness of supportive, affirming relationships.”

It is for this reason that most retirement residences now offer group-based activities that emphasize co-operation, teamwork, and social interaction, such as the Olympic Games at Shannon Oaks.

Programs such as this promote the setting and achieving of goals, a principle of wellness that was not lost on Dr. David Wagener. The 78-year-old retiree suffered a stroke last year, prompting him and his wife to move into Windsor Court Retirement Residence in Fredericton, New Brunswick, for a temporary stay. In order to help accelerate his recovery, the former runner took advantage of the extensive wellness programs available at this active living community. Every day Wagener and his wife engaged in gentle exercise, stretching and weight training, all based on a program that was age and ability specific. In a three-month period, Wagener says he almost completely recovered thanks to the support and guidance he received from Windsor Court staff. This daily routine, coupled with quality, healthy dining, entertainment and activities, and transportation and nursing support, allowed Dr. Wagener to regain strength in an enjoyable, stress-free environment.

The measurable benefits of wellness programs and services to aging seniors is what inspired Windsor Court—a community that has been open for 20 years—to build a state-of-the-art wellness centre. The new facility includes an endless-wave therapy pool, senior-friendly exercise equipment and on-site spa services. “In order to address our residents’ medical needs, we also offer a variety of services including a weekly blood pressure and health clinic hosted by a registered nurse, a foot-care service and a flu clinic,” says marketing manager Paul Doucette.

In Ontario’s scenic cottage country, Chartwell Muskoka Traditions provides a stunning new facility with the added benefit of extensive outdoor property to promote wellness among residents. “We are situated on protected parkland, and our natural surroundings provide serene outdoor walking space for our residents,” says the community’s marketing manager, Mary Jane Fletcher.

As this new facility continues to grow, the addition of wellness programs is top priority. Currently, residents benefit from regular musical performances by local entertainers, as well as the opportunity to participate in Senior Star, a Canadian Idol-type competition that involves all national Chartwell communities.

When it comes to health and wellness, the key seems to be balance. Most residences now focus equally on physical health and spiritual and emotional well-being. From healthy, made-from-scratch meals to scenic outdoor areas for walking and enjoying nature, and from well-programmed classes and activities to less-structured social time, an active life is usually a combination of all of these. “We encourage our community members to take inventory of their lives and try new experiences that may be in an area they are not as competent in or familiar with so they can assess how balanced their life really is,” says Amica’s Bergman.

Balance is what it’s all about for 90-year-old Helen Walsh. Moving into Amica at Whitby meant she had to give up her car and some of the freedom it allowed, but what she got in return was easy access to a highly social and active lifestyle. “I feel quite pampered here,” she says. “It’s like a five-star resort.” On the morning we spoke, Walsh was on her way downstairs for coffee with some of her friends at 11 a.m., followed by a Sit and Be Fit exercise class and then a game of Nintendo Wii bowling. “I’ve also taken salsa dance lessons—which is a bit hard for someone my age, especially since I have a new hip—but still it was a lot of fun,” she says with a laugh.

No matter how old or physically fit you may be, a focus on health and wellness means there will be something on the schedule that meets your needs and abilities. “As a facilitator of these programs, every time someone new joins a class, it’s my job to welcome them to our little family and ensure they feel comfortable and supported,” says Origin’s Filice. “That’s truly the meaning of wellness.” Learn about homes' availability for convalescent care stays that help seniors recover post-surgery and in other cases. 

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