Many experts are calling it a great reset – an opportunity to challenge traditional thinking when it comes to preventative health care for older adults.
In many cases, this two-year-and-counting pandemic has forced senior living providers to take a hard look in the mirror, whether evaluating existing health and safety protocols or addressing mounting concerns around issues such as nutrition, exercise and mental health.
“The pandemic has put a spotlight on all the gaps – and not just services older adults can access, but how our societal systems are set up,” says Olivia Chubey, chief service and operations officer for Silvera for Seniors, which provides independent and supportive living options for more than 1,500 residents living in 27 of its communities spread through all four quadrants of Calgary.
“Over the past two years, many older adults have been cut off from traditional supports, whether that be timely access to practitioners or resources to maintain independence … and sometimes even natural supports such as family members.”
In turn, creating a healthy living environment has become a linchpin to Silvera’s evolving service strategy. It’s involved, among other initiatives, stepping beyond traditional programming methods and, instead, working with residents to co-design lifestyle programs more suited to their needs.
“The idea with the Silvera Scholar program is to harness the expertise of our residents to develop the right type of programming for them – and even have them co-lead or even host many of the activities they want to see in their communities,” says Chubey, noting a lot of this co-designing work was seeded as early as 2018-19.
“Instead of just having people come into our communities and wait for bingo to be presented, we want to get them engaged and do something meaningful that fits them.”
She notes feedback to the initiative has been overwhelmingly positive so far, with six months of programming already developed through to mid-year that will include online, in-person and off-site learning and support opportunities. Examples include an in-development art program that will connect residents with local artists, as well as partnerships with different community organizations that will open access to additional counselling services.
Silvera has also tapped into the power of pet therapy – whether through the introduction of pet-friendly tenancy to some of its buildings or, in the case of Silvera’s Valleyview community, a dedicated cat room that’s modelled around the cat café concept (yet without the coffee).
“We’ve seen tremendous results in reduced stress levels and ability to cope. It’s a model we’re looking at expanding to additional communities,” says Chubey, noting the concept was developed in partnership with the University of Calgary and is operated in partnership with the Calgary Humane Society.
“With all of this, we’ve tried to be creative while still keeping our residents as co-designers and front and centre so they maintain some autonomy, contribute in meaningful ways and continue to have a voice.”
Chubey maintains there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to promoting positive health and wellness with older adults
“Diversity and inclusion are vital,” she says. “We have residents from many different cultures, which comes with considerations such as different culinary expectations. So it’s important that we recognize that and adapt – perhaps a customized dining program.”
Stella Chen, director of operations at Clover Living in Calgary’s Chinatown, says one of the single biggest challenges evolving from the pandemic has been mental well-being within the older adult population.
She says the community, which offers supportive and independent living options, has hired several additional staff over the past year whose primary focus is on promoting connections.
“As months have turned into years during this pandemic, many residents have deteriorated – not because they don’t have enough exercise or nutrition, but because they don’t feel connected to the outside world. They’ve lost a lot of the social interactions they had before the pandemic,” says Chen.
“So we’ve tried to create a sense of normal for them, even if that’s meant having to think outside of the box – for example, bringing Thailand and Japan to them through a combination of food, clothing and performances. It’s meant to excite them and provide them opportunities for interaction.”
Sometimes, it’s as simple as checking in on residents who don’t have family in the city, or country, and could be more susceptible to isolation and depression.
“Even if they’re in independent living, we want to make sure we touch base to ensure they’re safe, they’re eating well and they’re feeling well,” says Chen.
Healthy eating plays a similarly prominent role at Clover Living in promoting positive health and wellness. With most of its residents are from Calgary’s Asian community, traditional fare such as soup plays a feature role on most daily menus. “There’s a strong belief that a healthy life starts with a healthy broth filled with Chinese herbs,” says Chen, adding the intent with all dishes is to make them from scratch using natural ingredients.
“Eat well, age well, balance and be mindful. All of these things play an important role in good health and wellness,” adds Chen.
Neil Prashad, president of CEO of Origin Active Lifestyle Communities, believes the key to healthy residents starts with a healthy staff.
The company – which offers independent and assisted living options at Swan Evergreen Village and Whitehorn Village in the city’s southwest and northeast, respectively, as well as Spring Creek in Canmore – has a strategy in place that looks beyond the paycheck to make sure the wellness they’re preaching to older adults is also the wellness they’re practicing themselves.
“You cannot deliver true health and wellness to your customers if you don’t have staff who are well, as well,” says Prashad. “You can talk until you’re blue in the face about wanting to deliver enlightened customer wellness and services, but you also have to equally show love and respect to your staff. So they understand if you’re preaching balance and holistic wellness, that it isn’t a hollow promise – that we’re encouraging our people to also look after themselves.
When it comes to active living with its residents, Prashad says Origin’s philosophy is to remain open-minded about what that means, whether it’s physical, cognitive or spiritual. In fact, Origin’s “life-enrichment calendar” offers a proverbial smorgasbord of options ranging from movies, coffee talks and crafting to fitness classes, book clubs or even a game of billiards.
“We encourage our people to look at residents as whole people,” he says. “Some might not be unable to take part in a chair fitness activity, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have an active mind or be active in their own way. That could mean active companionship with their peers.”
Prashad believes that pandemic or not, senior living was always going to change with the first baby boomers turning 75 in 2021 – a “grey tsunami,” as he calls it. And it was always going to be important to not look at the future through the rearview mirror, but instead approach issues such as preventative health in a way that better aligns with the needs of this incoming generation.
“We think that new paradigm is home-based wellness. Not home care, but care as a service that’s part of personal wellness like housekeeping, laundry, fitness and nutrition,” says Prashad, noting the program launched by Origin involves staff offering everything from one-on-one exercises to games and conversations with residents in their suites.
“It’s really started to take off. There seems to be an acceptance that the experience of wellness can be multi-faceted.”