Senior Living: Engaging Seniors


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Keeping seniors engaged, Michael Grust insists, is the cornerstone of the new face of senior living—as well as the primary focus of future care.

“Senior engagement is the number-one quality-of-life issue,” says Grust, president and CEO of Senior Resource Group, which operates the high-end La Vida Del Mar community in Solana Beach and Rancho San Diego’s La Vida Real. “There are things we feel are very important, but they tend to differ for individuals—and we have to revolve around that. Seniors want to have a sense of control, they want to have options, they want to feel like they belong, they want to feel like they are at home. Our goal is to set them up for success in achieving this on a daily basis, so they can spend their days doing what makes them feel good about themselves and about their quality of life.”

Inan Linton, executive director of Belmont Village Senior Living of Cardiff, agrees. “Engaging seniors in a way that enriches their lives is one hallmark of Belmont Village Senior Living,” Linton says. “Our staff respects the knowledge ‘the greatest generation’ has to offer and actively seeks purposeful and life-enhancing programs—many of which involve the community at large, with many ages participating.”

Welcome to senior living, the next generation. In recent years, senior living providers have scrambled to upgrade their facilities to make them more like resorts than the stereotypical “old-age homes.” No more linoleum, muted green walls or acoustic-tile ceilings. Instead, a growing number of senior living facilities—not just in San Diego but nationwide—could be mistaken for luxury hotels or even posh resorts.

La Vida Del Mar, for example, offers well-appointed one- and two-bedroom residences on a campus with lush courtyards, verandas and even some ocean views. La Vida Real resembles a Spanish-style village and has seven distinct neighborhoods. Belmont Village of Cardiff boasts Craftsman-style architecture and is surrounded by an ecological preserve; its Sabre Springs sister, built in the Mission style, has walking trails, a putting green and panoramic views of the nearby mountains. Casa de las Campanas, on a lushly landscaped 23-acre campus, is nestled in the hills overlooking Lake Hodges.

Senior living providers also have added amenities and programs, from fitness centers, Olympic-size pools and day spas to classes that range from yoga and aerobics to foreign languages and computer. La Vida has an Internet lounge and a Wii fitness program that allows residents to turn on the video game console and wide-screen TV for virtual bowling, tennis and golf. Belmont Village offers wireless Internet access as well as a signature restaurant, Josephine’s Kitchen, where residents enjoy chef-prepared meals. And Casa de las Campanas has its own dinner theater and a cocktail lounge. The community also has gone green.

“We have a unique composting program using our kitchen waste and scrapes to create compost we provide to local farmers,” says sales and marketing director Marge Pronovost. “We in turn purchase our produce from these farmers.”

It’s all a far cry from communal TV rooms where residents sat on dusty, overstuffed sofas and watched old sitcom reruns on grainy black-and-white televisions.

Now comes the challenge of putting it all together—and shifting the focus from the facilities and amenities to each resident’s wants, needs and desires. The goal is to truly engage seniors, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

“That’s the direction carefully crafted communities are going,” says Pronovost. “Everything is geared toward wellness—not just physical wellness, but also spiritual and emotional wellness.”

To that end, Casa de las Campanas has more than 40 different clubs and committees. The emphasis is on integrating residents into the community so the traditional lines between caregiver and resident are blurred. “As residents move in, we like to explore their hobbies, talents and interests and find ways to bring that expertise into the community,” Pronovost says. “We have two computer clubs, one for Windows and one for Mac. We have our own orchestra and our own singing chorale, and they are very engaged, practicing and performing spring concerts and holiday concerts. We have a financial committee, made up of people who were once very powerful in the world of business, and they help with financial planning and recommendations. We have a 12-member marketing committee that helps me promote events.

“And we just had a new resident move in who has been an artist for 60 years. When he moved from Los Angeles to our community in San Diego, he brought an incredible amount of art. He’s now teaching a watercolor class here.”

Belmont Village has established an enrichment program that also seeks to engage residents in various ways.

“The Center for Life Enhancement program includes exercise, health, support and friendship via aqua classes, strength and stretching and balance classes,” Linton says. “The center also fosters increased brain activity through various programs and helps improve communication skills with classes such as computer classes, Spanish-language classes, think-tank trivia, astronomy classes and music appreciation, just to name a few.”

Both Belmont Village communities also have an MBA Club, a research-based program designed to maintain brain health and long-term wellness. “MBA [mind-body awareness] uses a holistic approach that includes activities and lifestyle choices in five areas of daily activity: mental fitness, physical exercise, nutrition, spiritual and creative thinking and pharmacology,” Linton says. “The program has been developed by a leading gerontologist and is supervised at each Belmont Village community by trained staff.”

It’s all part of an overall philosophy, she says, that is centered on the resident—and on elevating the staff from simple caregiver to an integral part of the community.

“Our residents feel safe, respected and well-cared for,” she says. “They are an important part of the conversation that affects what we do at Belmont Village. For instance, the dining committee suggests menu selections and changes to the dining program. From our senior resident council to the greeting committee, our residents can participate and become involved in their new home. The staff, too, benefits by the friendship and close bonds that develop with the residents and their families.

“We know we are doing a good job when our residents are enjoying their retirement.”

At La Vida Del Mar and La Vida Real, the focus in coming months will be the rollout of an engagement program called SnRGy, which will offer customized classes and activities based on resident surveys, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the quality of life for everyone in the community is as good as it possibly can get.

“We’re trying to create a way of life for our community that elevates the opportunities for engagement,” Grust says. “We want to heighten awareness of what options are available and create an overall environment of wellness. We are in the service business, and we want to develop a truly synergistic relationship between our customers and our staff. That’s really the key to helping us understand how best to serve our customers—we need to get to know them and use that knowledge to shape programs that offer them the opportunity to engage in whatever way they like, from learning a foreign language to doing volunteer work. We have lots of rooms and common space, and we need to be flexible and responsive to our residents; maybe one day we’ll have a great book discussion and the next day a class on how to speak Spanish.”

Motivation, encouragement, support—those are all key elements of SnRGy, he says. “Giving people a compelling reason to leave their homes requires a lot more than just the quality of care, or the quality of the food, or the physical plant. And that’s sort of the next step we as an industry have to take. We want to make a difference in their lives, and having an ambitious program that engages everyone heightens everyone’s awareness and access to pursuing what really does make a good day for them.”

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