In 1900, the average life expectancy for a male in the United States was 46.3 years. For females, it was 48.3 years. By 2014, the ages had jumped to 76.3 for males and 81.3 for females. One reason is the shift in the leading causes of death and illness from infection and parasitic disease thanks to advances in medicine. Another is the implementation of greater safety precautions in the workplace. A third contributor is people are adapting healthier lifestyles by exercising and eating well-balanced meals.
Taking all of that into account, today’s seniors are able to stay healthy and active long after retirement age, which is one of the reasons why retirement communities are stepping up their game when it comes to offering a lifestyle that provides plenty of activities to keep their residents in motion.
“You are never too old or frail to exercise,” says Thelma Shaffer, director of marketing at Mennowood Retirement Community in Newport News. “Even though seniors may have physical limitations that make them believe it’s a good idea to slow down and take it easy, there are even better reasons to get moving. Many seniors may be afraid of falling, but regular exercise builds strength and stamina, prevents loss of bone mass and improves balance, which effectively reduces their risk of falling.”
Shaffer points out that being more active also helps energize a person's mood, relieves stress, helps manage symptoms of illness and pain and improves one’s overall sense of well-being. Exercise is proven to improve a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, high blood pressure and, of course, obesity.
Mennowood provides a number of opportunities to keep their residents active. “We have a walking group, strength and balance classes, as well as yoga,” says Shaffer. “The residents play games that keep them active like volley balloon, basketball, mop hockey and bowling. We have our own in-house programs for occupational, physical and speech therapy, which is all covered by their insurance, and the therapy team helps us develop individualized exercise routines for all of our residents.”
Kori Poplin, fitness director at Harbor’s Edge Retirement Community in Norfolk, also believes that movement is important for everyone, at any age. “I’ve been in this profession for about 17 years, and I’ve done a lot of research on studies and tracked outcomes,” she says. “What we’re seeing is that people need to focus on strength, balance and flexibility to retain a healthy and active lifestyle, with strength being the top focus. Our residents are high functioning, independent people, and we want them to be able to do all the things they want to do.”
Poplin offers about 30 different classes a week, including Zumba Gold, aerobics, Aqua Zumba, Thai Chi and yoga, as well as personal training sessions. Harbor’s Edge also offers a fitness center and swimming pool with several programs for residents who want to take advantage of more individualized activities.
Aside from the physical benefits of exercise, staying active also helps to promote a healthy brain. “When residents are following my instructions or mirroring what another instructor is doing it engages the mind,” Poplin says. “I never teach the same workout twice, so they never know what to expect. And while we’re exercising, we’re moving, breathing and talking about things like ‘What are we doing to have fun today?’ So they are thinking about what to share, which is a big part of the mental component. Not to mention all of that good blood flow and oxygen that’s stimulating the brain.”
In addition to staying active, proper nutrition is also a key to keeping fit and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. “I offer different nutritional programs seasonally,” Poplin says. “Right now we’re in the middle of ‘Eat Smart. Weigh Less. Move More.’ We just finished ‘Maintain, Don’t Gain Through the Holidays.’ And once a month our chef does a healthy cooking lunch with a demonstration. Our residents have full kitchens, so they can go home and make the same recipes the chef prepared. Or they can just learn about healthy ingredients and foods while enjoying a delicious lunch.”
One final element that Poplin includes in her fitness philosophy is building relationships. “Knowing the residents, talking with them and genuinely caring about them makes them more inclined to follow your advice on fitness and wellness,” she says. “I think that’s really key to keeping them coming back for more.”
Combining fitness opportunities with good nutrition are a big part of the equation in keeping seniors happy and healthy at both communities. But there’s also something to be said for the old expression that laughter is the best medicine. “We provide other activities that help keep our residents’ minds active,” Shaffer says. “They also play Jeopardy and trivia games, and paint night is especially fun because we do a lot of laughing.”