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.
It’s easy to see the communities that Covia creates through its housing. What’s less known is the community created through its services. Covia provides Resident Service Coordination to 21 senior affordable housing communities throughout California, a service that’s largely invisible despite its impact on people’s lives.
Service coordination is about connecting residents with the public benefits, services and programs that can improve their lives and makes it more likely they will be able to stay longer in their homes.
“A lot of seniors have a lack of resources so we bring them community resources. We play the role of a bridge, connecting our seniors to local community resources,” says Bonnie Chang, Resident Services Coordinator for Lytton Gardens in Palo Alto. These can range from help with insurance or other paperwork to finding a way to pay for an electric scooter to registering residents with a local PACE [Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly], and much more.
Service Coordinators are also on-site resident advocates, says Ericka Battaglia, Lead Resident Services Coordinator at Good Shepherd Homes in Inglewood. “When I say advocate, I mean we support them through whatever they’re going through whether it’s physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. If we see a resident is not doing well, we provide resources for them so that they’re able to get better and age in place successfully.”
Katherine Smith, Senior Director of Social Services, explains that one of the most important things RSCs do is provide wellness education programs on site. Giving residents information on managing chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure, or providing fall prevention programs makes it more likely that residents will be able to live at home as long as possible, and prevent the need for invasive and costly medical interventions.
Service Coordinators come from a range of backgrounds, though many have degrees in gerontology and social work; most have Masters Degrees. Most of the Covia RSCs are bilingual or trilingual; among them, they can offer services in Korean, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and ASL and help to bridge the gap between cultural and language barriers.
The advanced degrees in social work also help Service Coordinators speak the same language as community service providers, says Battaglia. “If you’re finding a resource for behavioral health, the process moves a lot swifter if you speak the same professional language.”
Battaglia explains that she works as a liaison between building managers and residents. While the property manager’s job is to maintain the facility and fulfill HUD guidelines, the RSC’s job is to see that the resident is doing well. “For instance,” she says, “my property manager will come to me and say, ‘We have a resident that is not going to pass this inspection because they’re hoarding.’ “Instead of just going to residents with paperwork, notices and warnings, I can go and say, ‘Let’s figure this out together.’” It’s a win-win situation.
Residents win when they receive the services they need. Mary Avina, Resident Service Coordinator at Jennings Court in Santa Rosa, tells the story of a resident who needed significant dental work but couldn’t afford it. “He also desperately needed other medical procedures, but due to the infection in his mouth, he wasn’t able to get the other medical procedures done,” Avina explains. “So I assisted him in find the resources to be able to finance his most needed dental work to be done, and he was able to get that done and then able to get the medical procedure that he desperately needed. He’s very happy now and doing a lot better.”
“A lot of these seniors are – you know, they’re new to aging,” says Battaglia. “We’re trained to make sure their living experience isn’t another hassle for them, isn’t another barrier they have to overcome. We chose this because this is what we love to do, and this is the population that we want to serve.”
January 21-27 is Activity Professionals week. But what is an activity professional? And what do they do?
“From an outsider’s perspective, one assumes that we play bingo every day. This is not the case,” says Connie Yuen, Program Coordinator for St. Paul’s Towers in Oakland. “Our activities aim to stimulate the mind and body, awaken your senses, enrich lives and make an impact to the culture of our community.”
Executive Director Mary Linde agrees. “What is amazing about activities/life enrichment at St. Paul’s is that it truly is Life Enrichment. The kinds of activities are broad and so engaging. We bring residents across all levels of care together so no one feels marginalized.”
The activities at each community vary depending on the interest of the residents. Megan Sullivan from San Francisco Towers says, “The majority of programs provided at SFT are based on resident input; they help support the unique culture here. As Life Enrichment Director, I work directly with the [Resident] Program Committee to schedule all special concerts and lectures. I also add my own programming, based on resident interests, such as online talks from the Harvard Institute of Politics.”
Activities are also designed with the eight aspects of wellness in mind: Emotional, Environmental, Financial, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social and Spiritual.
“Activity professionals create programs to be beneficial and therapeutic to increase overall well-being and quality of life in individuals, by determining their interests and finding what activities provided can best suit them,” says Alexis Kendrix, Director of Activities at Webster House Health Center in Palo Alto.
“I wish that people knew more about the benefits of participating in wellness activities. People should want to participate in activities because of the enjoyment and fulfillment, instead of just to keep busy. Providing activities that are of people’s leisure interests is meaningful to their overall well-being,” Kendrix adds.
Mary Lou Kelpe, Director of Wellness for Canterbury Woods in Pacific Grove, explains, “When we go to Point Lobos State Reserve with multiple docents and have a picnic, it’s much more than a walk and lunch. It’s Emotional, Environmental, Intellectual, Physical, Social and Spiritual Wellness. I believe that’s why we feel so great, after spending time engaging in nature.”
“The active imaginations and energy of our professionals working in tandem with the residents lead to extraordinary events and activities,” says Norma Brambilla, Executive Director of Canterbury Woods. “Truly the trick is finding some one thing to entice each person. Variation is key. The challenge to these professionals is never-ending and their caring and ideas are boundless. It would be so boring without them!”