When Pat Lau, Activities Coordinator for Webster House in Palo Alto, first created the Healthy Connections program in 2016, she had no idea the kind of impact it would eventually have.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just have a little volunteer program. They can work with the residents, meet them, talk to them,’” she says. “But it evolved into so much more.”
Now in its third year, Healthy Connections partners with Stanford University’s Office of Undergraduate Advising to provide pre-med students with a setting to gain clinical experience as well as giving residents in the Health Center the personal connections that studies continue to show are beneficial to people’s health and well-being.
Webster House and its affiliated Health Center are located just a mile away from Stanford University. With physicians from Stanford and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation making rounds at the Health Center daily, the program offers valuable experience for students interested in exploring the medical field.
In addition, the program exposes pre-med students to the need for, and importance of, geriatrics as a medical specialty. According to the American Geriatric Society, 20,000 geriatricians are required to keep up with the need right now, and that need will only grow as the population ages. There are currently fewer than 7,300 certified geriatricians practicing nationwide.
Volunteers for the Healthy Connection program must spend a minimum of three hours each week with the residents and at least 100 clinical hours at the Health Center. “Most of the students, though, work well beyond the hundred hours and some have gone on to two hundred hours,” according to Lau.
Students must be 18 years old, pass a criminal background check, be screened for tuberculosis, and attend an in-depth orientation. “There’s a number of regulations and things they need to know about if they’re going to be in a health care setting and working with a vulnerable population such as older adults,” Lau explains, including the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), patient rights, elder abuse, infection control, and safety procedures.
So far, 12 students have participated in the program. Four of the 12 students who have been through the program have been accepted to medical school.
“Everyone seemed to benefit,” Lau says. “The student was exposed to a clinical environment, but most of all, there was a very strong, caring, and reliable relationship.”
Healthy Connections recently received a Sereno Group 1% For Good grant from the Palo Alto office. 1% for Good provides grants to local organizations that are active in improving our communities. Sereno Group Palo Alto will be supporting Healthy Connections from July through September 2018.
Brian Chancellor from the Sereno Group says, ““We were intrigued and touched by the inter-generational experience between the students and the residents. It’s exciting to support them all in their care and cultivation of such a relationship when it is so greatly needed and appreciated.”
As the new school year begins at Stanford, students can anticipate another benefit of participating in the Healthy Connections program: Dr. Peter Pompei, a professor at the Stanford Medical School, general internist and geriatrician with 20 years of clinical experience, will serve as the program’s medical director, providing mentorship and support for the students.
But it’s the relationships built between the residents and students that most impresses Lau. “These students really help support these older adults. They improve the quality of their lives. And for me, I can’t tell you what I feel when I see some of these individuals smile.”
For more information on the Healthy Connections program, please contact Pat Lau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 30, 2018 marked the 25th anniversary of National Senior Health and Fitness Day, which is observed annually on the last Wednesday in May. We interviewed Esteban Sahade, Wellness Coordinator for St. Paul’s Towers, for his insights on senior health and fitness.
How did you get involved in senior health and fitness?
When I was in grad school I took an internship to work in health and fitness with seniors. It was an opportunity to learn something I was little familiar with. As I started I discovered a new, fascinating world. I felt that all my previous training, experience and even my personality came together and preparing me for that. Soon afterwards I knew it was what I wanted to do from that moment on.
What (if anything) is different about senior health and fitness from being a fitness trainer for other populations?
From a fitness perspective I think it’s a most rewarding experience. You can positively impact so many lives. With a relatively small investment of time and energy you can see fast and profound functional changes. You’re directly helping them improving their quality of life, independence, and dignity. Besides that, older adults recognize and are grateful for any effort, little or big, in helping them improve, and the time you put into it.
What do you think would surprise people about senior fitness?
One thing that surprises many people is to know that the rate of improvement in some fitness components, like muscular strength, is similar for people in their 90s and people in their 20s. There are challenges, but with good care, the right stimulus, and in the absence of disease and injuries/accidents, the aging human body is capable of outstanding physical achievements, as shown by the performance of senior athletes who train and compete in many sports and age categories, including 100+.
What do you recommend for someone who wants to stay fit and healthy as a senior?
Find activities you like and enjoy. Exercise is not really necessary if you have a diverse physically active lifestyle. The movement involved in regular activities such as grocery shopping, gardening, domestic chores, visiting friends or family, playing with your grandchildren, walking your dog, dancing, travelling, etc., may be all the stimulus your body needs to stay fit and healthy. Add movement throughout your day; for example, stand more times, walk more when you have the opportunity (or create some), and use the stairs if you can.
Why is it important to recognize senior health and fitness?
Because it’s not about exercise, it’s about life and dignity. Failing to recognize its importance creates a negative social conditioning. Even if times have changed, many people, including family members, still think that their elders are too old or too frail to move or to exercise. This results in lost opportunities and motivation for seniors to get more fit and be healthier, creating an environment that leads them to an accelerated decline and functional loss.
What have you learned from working with seniors on health and fitness?
It doesn’t matter how active (or little active) you’ve been all your life. It’s never too late to start moving more, or different, and increase your body functional capacity which will result in positive changes in your life, improved wellbeing (not only physical, but also psychological, emotional, and even social), and better quality of life.