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Best Aging Strategy Is to Stay Active

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It doesn’t matter what assisted living residents are doing as long as they’re doing something. They could be playing cards, tending flowerbeds, baking cookies or lifting weights. As long as they keep active, the centers are doing their jobs.

“If your mind is mobile, your body is mobile, and that makes you feel better and improves your quality of life,” says Denise Rubano, director of program services at Ohio Living Park Vista. “You don’t want to sit here doing nothing. It’s mind, body and soul.”

At nursing and assisted living homes, most activities are planned with two purposes: exercise and socialization.

Earlier this year, AARP cited studies that point to the benefits of aging adults who engage in physical activity. Those who exercise at least 45 minutes per week are 80% more likely to maintain functions required for independent living. People who take walks at least three times a week are less likely to develop dementia.

Meanwhile, a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that older women who maintain a large social network reduce their risk of cognitive impairments by 26%.

“It sustains life and keeps you going. There’s no place like home, but we try to make this the next best thing,” says Maureen DeTamble, activities director at Clepper Manor in Sharon, Pa. “Keeping them alert, even for us, is good. It enriches their life rather than just sitting at home looking at a wall.”

When it comes to exercise, part of the trick is making it enjoyable. At the Woodlands at HamptonWoods in Poland Township, Lynn Dailey has incorporated Drums Alive classes – where residents drum on five-gallon buckets and beach balls – and work in the garden.

“We make it fun. It’s every day for a good half-hour. We try to sneak in things that are exercise that they don’t realize,” she says. “Just getting there, whether they’re in a wheelchair or walking, is still exercise to keep them mobile.”

On the daily agenda at Clepper Manor are activities such as arts and crafts, pet therapy, religious services and visits from entertainers. With many residents hailing from the Hermitage-Sharon area, community events are also important, adds Sarah Boland, marketing director for The Nugent Group, which owns Clepper Manor. In the past, residents have ridden in a float in Sharon’s Memorial Day parade and, for several years, have stuffed the bags used to light the braziers for WaterFire Sharon.

“When it was all done, WaterFire would give us the video and send some shirts so the residents could be active in their community,” she says, “even though they’re living here.”

Beyond having a full schedule, planning incorporates several levels of care. If an assisted living center has both a short-stay rehab center and a memory care unit, the calendar must meet the needs of both. At Park Vista, Rubano puts together five schedules – one for each of the center’s units – with some overlap among them.

“Things in health care are focused on their unit because they can’t get out as much to the lobby or gathering room because we don’t have the manpower to move everybody,” she says.

At the Autumn Hills Care Center in Niles, activity director Stacey Cornell looks toward even the basic parts of activities to find ways for residents to get involved. If a resident doesn’t have full use of her hands, then she can help by reading instructions aloud to the group or use her other hand to help with pouring.

“If there’s a resident with Alzheimer’s who isn’t understanding the task at hand, I might have them smell the cinnamon or get some sort of sensory stimulation,” Cornell says. “If it’s a resident who is alert but unable to participate, I’ll still bring them here to participate because they can socialize. … There’s always a way to get them involved.”

While some events are standards, many ideas for new activities come from the residents. Clepper Manor hosts a monthly residents council meeting to gain input, as do other assisted living centers.

And what they want to do can shift from month to month. With warmer weather rolling in, residents at Woodlands and Clepper Manor want to be outside, whether with pets, gardening or just sitting in the sun. Right now at Autumn Hills, residents are interested in cooking and art.

“They usually tell me what they want to do. They’re still very active,” says Lisa Slipkovich, the activity director at Shepherd of the Valley’s Poland community. “In the past year, they’ve formed their own art group that meets every Friday. They’ve formed a chime choir and a singing choir and play billiards.”

Continuing education, such as provided by Park Vista’s Gelhaar Center or from reading books or even educational videos on places such as The Vatican, is also popular.

“You’re never too old to learn. Going back to mind, body and soul, it’s enriching their lives and raising the bar of what we do here,” Rubano says.

Independent activities play a role. Not all residents will go to every event and most events – four or five per day – run an hour or so. That leaves ample free time for residents to do as they please. It’s during this time, the activity directors note, that residents interact most with each other.

“Setting up a movie to watch or having them come out to play Uno, having those things available for them to do independently is important because that’s where they make friends,” Slipkovich says. “We have a library on the second floor and we have our puzzle people. … They’ll meet after dinner and do a puzzle together.”

Puzzles, she adds, are one of most popular pastimes. Each floor has a cabinet full of them and on each floor, several puzzles – either completed or in progress – are on the tables. She estimates there are some 500 puzzles at Shepherd of the Valley Poland.

To come up with new ideas and avoid a stale schedule, the directors look outward. Pintrest is a common source, provided the activities can be adapted to fit residents’ needs. At Clepper Manor, DeTamble reads activity-planning magazine Creative Forecasting and NotJustBingo.com.

And, the activity directors note, the cliché of nursing home bingo is a cliché for a reason. All have bingo nights at least once a week, if not more often, and residents either love it or hate it, Dailey and DeTamble agree.

By having plenty to do, both formal and informal activities, allows residents to keep active and make new friends. There’s usually an adjustment period, not all that different from the first day of school, before they adapt to the routine and fall in with a new group of friends.

“I’ve had family members tell me, ‘Mom doesn’t like to do anything. She doesn’t need activities.’ And the first couple of days, we just build up that rapport,” DeTamble says. “But then we get families telling us they can’t believe she’s playing bingo.”

Pictured: Activity director at Shepherd of the Valley, Lisa Slipkovich.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.