By Jane Adler, Special to the Tribune
May 7, 2010
Can a building keep you healthy?
Velma Robinson thinks so. The 82-year-old had been living alone in a ranch house on two acres of land in West Virginia. She took care of the land by herself with the help of a riding mower. But recently the workload was getting to be too much as was the tug to be closer to her three sons, who live in the Chicago area. About 10 months ago, Robinson moved to Friendship Village, a retirement community in Schaumburg that offers meals and lots of activities.
When Robinson lived alone, she skipped meals and ate out a lot. But now she has five dining venues to choose from at the large retirement complex on West Schaumburg Road. "I'm getting the right food," says Robinson, who also likes sports. She keeps active by bowling and golfing in warmer weather. She even enjoys a game of Texas hold 'em poker on Saturday nights.
The new routine has actually improved Robinson's health. She no longer needs sleep medication, her dosage of blood pressure medication has been cut in half, and her thyroid condition has improved.
"I just feel better," said Robinson. "This is really working out for me."
The activities and wellness programs Robinson enjoys are proving popular at retirement communities throughout the Chicago area. Long gone are the days when bingo was the highlight of the week. Today, many retirement facilities offer everything from yoga to college classes and Wii video game tournaments.
Local active adult communities offer a variety of healthy aging programs too. These communities feature single-family homes and town homes typically meant for baby boomers and empty nesters seeking a resort-type lifestyle. Active adult communities usually have fitness facilities, activities, lectures, programs and social clubs.
Builder Cambridge Homes has sales under way at three local active adult projects: Carillon Club in Naperville, Carillon at Stonegate in Aurora and Carillon at Cambridge Lakes in Pingree Grove. All three have fitness facilities, swimming pools and walking trails. "We offer a combination of great facilities and classes," said Dave Smith, vice president of sales and marketing for Cambridge Homes. "It's a key element of the lifestyle."
Homebuyers today expect top-notch amenities, Smith adds. For example, the Naperville and Pingree Grove properties have indoor swimming pools where water aerobics is popular.
Active adult builder Del Webb has four local developments with home sales under way: Grand Dominion in Mundelein, Edgewater in Elgin, Sun City Huntley, and Shorewood Glen in Shorewood. "Healthy aging is the essence of the Del Webb brand," said Chris Naatz, Midwest area director of marketing for Pulte and Del Webb of Illinois. "We believe in social, emotional and physical well-being."
The Del Webb properties have fitness centers and other amenities. Grand Dominion, for example, features a 13-acre lake. Also, each community has a relationship with a wellness provider. Sherman Hospital gives presentations at Edgewater on topics such as healthy nutrition.
The push for healthy aging has been gaining steam over the last several years, according to Jean Elliott, director of housing at Life Services Network, a Lisle-based organization for senior buildings and service providers. Retirement communities usually offer a full schedule of activities and wellness services because that's what new residents want — a trend expected to accelerate as demanding baby boomers start to retire. Also, in order to compete, retirement communities have a lot of amenities, such as swimming pools and fitness facilities.
But there's another reason to offer wellness programs. Research shows that busy seniors have a better quality of life. In one recent study by the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, active seniors were found to be more likely to remain independent and report fewer instances of loneliness.
Many healthy aging programs are based on the concept of the six dimensions of wellness: physical, social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and vocational. Some programs have recently added an environmental dimension to the list. Building activities are designed around each dimension of healthy aging.
The Garlands of Barrington, a retirement community in the northwest suburb, recently won an award for its healthy aging program from the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA). The group selects the top five active aging programs in the country each year from about 500 entries.
The award-winning program at The Garlands, called EngAGE, focuses on the six areas of wellness and provides activities in every sphere. The name was selected to emphasize the goals of the program. Commenting on the award, Colin Milner at the ICAA said, "People may participate in programs, but if they're not engaged they won't come back."
Bonnie and Don Smith moved to the Garlands about four years ago. They started out in their own apartment. But last year, Don, who has dementia, moved to the nursing section of the building, and Bonnie moved to a smaller unit where she lives with her cat, Cato. "Aging is not a dream," said Bonnie. "But I am so happy to have good care for my husband."
Bonnie hasn't let the situation get her down. She exercises everyday and participates in art classes. She goes on outings to places such as the zoo and Art Institute. If she were living alone in a house, even with friends nearby, Bonnie says it wouldn't be the same as being able to just walk down the hall and find something to do with someone. "That keeps you engaged," said Bonnie. "Keeping your mind and body active, that's the key."
Though retirement buildings offer readymade programs and activities, resources are available in most communities for seniors who still live in their long-time single-family homes and apartments. Local senior centers typically offer a variety of programs to promote healthy aging.
But getting seniors to participate in programs whether they're down the hall or a car ride away can be tough, activity directors say. Some seniors aren't born joiners. Others aren't in good health. And some are depressed as they watch their spouses and friends die and their own life options narrow.
The social dimension of healthy aging is very important, experts say. Seniors who become isolated get lonely. They tend not to eat well, or to exercise. The situation can become a downward spiral leading to little outside contact and few activities. It's just too easy to sit on the couch and watch television.
"People who don't make the effort go into a little tunnel," said 96-year-old Elizabeth Werrenrath, who with husband, Reinald, lives at Westminster Place, a retirement community in Evanston. "Part of healthy aging is keeping your mind open."
Elizabeth attends lots of lectures and does yoga twice a week. She enthusiastically talks about the interfaith discussions she still participates in as a long-time member of the group, Common Ground. And Reinald wouldn't miss his meeting with the men's group, a close cadre of friends since only about 20 percent of the residents at the complex are male.
Best of all, when the couple moved to Westminster Place they had no idea at their age that they would make so many new, and good, friends. "There's a wonderful mix of people living here," said Elizabeth.
Activity directors try to get residents engaged. At The Garlands, if a resident is missing one of the wellness dimensions, the staff suggests an activity to fill the void. "We are not dragging people out," said activities director Jill Lund. But the staff reaches out to people to make them aware of opportunities to participate. "We always have that communication going," noted Lund.
Some good advice comes from Robinson at Friendship Village: "You just can't sit in your room all day. You have to keep pushing."
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