Wellness 2.0: Life Plan Communities Customize Programs to Boost Engagement

The wellness trend has taken the senior living industry by storm — but simply encouraging more healthy habits or offering one-size-fits-all wellness programs may not work.

Residents carry with them certain innate behavioral traits and personalities that may affect their overall health and wellness outcomes, suggesting that providers need to think about catering their offerings to a wider, more diverse swath of older adults.

That’s according to new findings from The Age Well Study, a five-year initiative from Mather Institute in partnership with Northwestern University and a variety of senior living industry organizations.

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“I think providers can look at the findings and use them to develop or customize their programs and resources,” Cate O’Brien, director at Mather Institute, told Senior Housing News.

Mather Institute is the research arm of Evanston, Illinois-based senior living nonprofit Mather. The institute was created in 1999 to conduct research that could help improve programs and housing for older adults.

The Age Well Study’s first year of results showed that residents of life plan communities generally experience higher levels of wellbeing than older adults living in the general population.

The year-two results are based on responses from 5,777 residents living in 122 life plan communities across the U.S. For the study, residents completed surveys assessing their health, wellness and other characteristics, and staff completed surveys to provide data on their organization’s characteristics. Mather Institute administered the year-two survey between January and April of last year.

Different strokes

According to year-two results from the five-year study, residents’ behavioral traits may help or hurt their ability to thrive in a senior living community.

Some of the findings may seem obvious — for instance, life plan community residents who were more open to experiences or were extroverts reported the highest levels of healthy behaviors and more positive health outcomes. Similarly, residents who were more optimistic or who had more positive perceptions of aging reported eating healthier diets and experiencing better overall health and lower overall stress. And, residents who form strong bonds within their community tended to engage in more healthy behaviors and have better overall health

Conversely, residents who were identified as more neurotic reported worse overall health and higher overall stress in their lives, the year-two results show.

There were also more surprising findings, such as that more agreeable residents reported lower overall stress, they were also less physically active, and reported worse overall health.

Mather Institute

The study also found that six out of 10 surveyed residents said they’re engaging in a sufficient amount of physical activity. For residents who said they weren’t sufficiently active, many cited health as the biggest reason why, suggesting that there may be opportunities to educate residents about aging and physical activity.

The new results lend more evidence to the notion that senior living providers should think about tailoring their wellness programs toward more kinds of residents if they want those programs to have full effect.

“It’s important to create programs that are of interest to all of these different personality types,” O’Brien said. “Some people might love a social exercise class, whereas another person wants to do something by themselves or one-on-one.”

Already, some providers are doing just that. These include Frederick, Maryland-based senior housing and care nonprofit Asbury Communities as well as a handful communities that directly participated in the Age Well study. All of them are seeking new ways to get more of their residents involved in their own wellbeing.

And focusing on wellness doesn’t only lead to better outcomes for residents. It can also mean longer lengths of stay or better occupancy rates, according to Kristen Schooley, director of wellness at Montereau, a life plan community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that participated in the study.

“The longer they remain in our independent living area, that’s great for them and it’s great for us,” Schooley told SHN. “It costs us money whenever we turn over an apartment, so we’re going to experience positive outcomes if we can help our residents remain self-sufficient for as long as possible.”

Remaining in an independent living setting for as long as possible is also financially beneficial for the community’s residents, Schooley added.

Strategies for wellness

While it’s good news that extroverts and residents open to new experiences are engaging in programs with gusto, there is more work to be done to attract those that are more introverted, or don’t prefer boisterous social gatherings.

One way to attract introverts to participate in fitness programs is by offering more private coaching or expanded fitness center hours, the Well Age study noted. Montreau, for example, keeps its fitness center open 24 hours a day.

“If you’re more of an introvert or you prefer working out by yourself, you can come at those off times,” Schooley said. “We also offer personal training in our fitness center, and even at home for people who don’t like the gym.”

Getting more introverts to participate in fitness offerings is also a priority at Moorings Park, a life plan community in Naples, Florida, that also participated in the Well Age study.

“If we know that the extroverts … are participating in a large capacity, how do we get those introverts to participate?” Robert Sorenson, director of wellness at Moorings Park, told Senior Housing News. “You might focus on something completely unrelated, but have that subtle note of physicality tied into it.”

At Moorings Park — and at many other communities throughout the U.S. — residents play bocce as a means to engage in light physical activity and socialize with one another. Senior living providers could use these kinds of opportunities as a “backdoor” to get more introverted residents more deeply involved in their own wellness, Sorenson said.

“If I could get an introverted individual out to bocce, they’re much more likely to do that than come into the gym and use a treadmill,” Sorenson said. “If you want to program for fitness, you don’t always want to push fitness.”

Another potential strategy to better support the health and wellbeing of residents is to offer lectures or other kinds of programs that educate residents about things like resilience, sense of purpose, optimism, and how to foster those traits. Moorings Park, for example, holds weekly lectures on different wellness-themed topics.

That’s a strategy The Mather, a Mather community in Evanston, Illinois, also employs. The community has a number of resident lecturers who blend their personal interests with educating their peers, including a choreographer who’s an expert in folk dancing.

“She’ll talk about the history of folk dancing, and maybe do a demo,” said Beth Bagg, director of repriorment services at The Mather. “Those participating in the lecture not only learn a little about the culture of the dance, but the actual steps themselves.”

According to the Age Well study, many residents are stuck with the persistent yet incorrect belief that getting older means having to reduce physical activity. Lectures such as the one offered at The Mather in Evanston could help those residents understand that physical activity isn’t just going to the gym or playing sports.

When a resident does display wellness-linked behaviors, The Mather celebrates it — and everything is relative.

“If someone feels they are doing a good job, that’s 99% of it,” Bagg said. “For instance, if a resident says they swam two laps in the pool but they couldn’t do that a year ago, that perception is so important.”

Other strategies mentioned in the report include providing programs or physical environments that help lessen depressive symptoms, offering a wellness coaching program, or pairing new residents with a “welcome buddy” to help them socialize.

At Asbury, new residents take part in a welcome program which pairs them up with an existing resident living in the same setting on campus. Newcomers can also participate in a “wellness profile” that measures their physical and mental wellbeing. And, Asbury is currently rolling out an onboarding email campaign for new residents.

“We attempt to understand their interests and try to also make sure it is with someone that has similar [interests] or at the very least connect them with someone,” Justin Margut, director of wellness at Bethany Village, an Asbury community in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, told SHN. “[For example,] if someone likes to garden, then we would make sure they are introduced to others that garden.”

At Asbury Solomons in Solomons, Maryland, residents find peace of mind by meditating and practicing tai chi or yoga. And these are just a few of the ways older adults can boost their sense of wellness there, according to Dennis Poremski, director of wellness at Asbury Solomons

“We don’t expect everyone to love every opportunity,” Poremski told SHN. “We do expect everyone to love the opportunity they’ve chosen that fits who they are and how they want to live.”

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