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How to find long-term care that prioritizes fitness and healthy living

As we age, staying physically fit can be more challenging than ever, but that doesn’t make it any less important. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), regular physical activity can help delay, prevent or manage many debilitating and costly chronic diseases faced by adults who are 50 and older. With that in mind, older adults and their loved ones looking for a long-term care facility might want to find one that prioritizes keeping residents engaged both physically and cognitively.

The adage “use it or lose it” is true for most older adults, says Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, a licensed certified clinical social worker, author of “Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One” and an instructor in gerontology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.  

“When we stop engaging in physical activity, a decline typically begins,” she says. “Physical activity has been linked with better physical health, less dementia, as well as less depression and other mental health conditions.”  

Here, aging experts and caregivers make the case for fostering a healthy lifestyle and offer tips on how to find a nursing home, assisted living or other skilled nursing facility that will support your loved one’s efforts to stay physically and mentally fit. 

Why it’s so important that older adults are able to work out

Lisa M. Cini, founder of Mosaic Design Studio and a leading Alzheimer’s and long-term care design expert, points out that as we age, we lose fat and muscle. “Factor in that most seniors have arthritis, and the best thing to do for that is to get moving and exercise,” she says. “Strength, flexibility and increased balance are all benefits of participating in physical activity.”

In light of that, Cini adds that her firm prioritizes features that will support older adults’ fitness, such as therapy spas, indoor pools, outdoor pools and hot tubs. She says that water therapy — proven to bolster flexibility, balance, strength, power and agility — is wonderful, even if it’s just to get out and socialize with other older adults. 

But whether residents are doing laps in the pool or going for walks around the grounds, a daily fitness routine can support their mental well-being as well. John Fawkes, certified personal trainer and editor of wellness resource The Unwinder, adds, “Working out triggers that rush of endorphins that are the foundation of feeling happy and content. It can sometimes even be the best part of a resident’s day, helping them explore new hobbies or pick up on activities they genuinely love, such as dance or yoga.”

What’s more, enjoying exercise is the key to consistency, and that consistency allows you to reap the ongoing mental, emotional and physical benefits of working out, adds Fawkes. 

What to look for while touring a facility

While glossy brochures might make a community look appealing, there’s no substitute for seeing a facility in person.

Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, a family and gerontological nurse practitioner and faculty member for Walden University’s Master of Science in Nursing program, outlines what to look for while touring a care community to determine if it will support you or your loved one’s healthy lifestyle: 

  • Are residents involved in activities?

  • Are they walking around the facility’s grounds? You can also ask questions about the grounds, e.g. are they made for walking, is there a pond, are there benches for resting, etc.? 

  • Do residents have access to Wi-Fi — which could be used to access online workouts — in their rooms? 

  • Does the facility have a pool or hot tub?

  • Does it offer a handicap access lift? Should your loved one’s physical abilities decline, you want to know that your changing needs will be met, says Kriebel-Gasparro.

What questions to ask about wellness (or activity) programs 

Piyushi Dhir, caregiver for her parents and grandparents in Ontario, Canada, advises asking the following questions to get the best sense of a facility’s commitment to resident’s physical and mental well-being.

  • What activities are offered and how frequently? While touring, keep an eye out for a calendar of events and make a note of flyers posted around the facility. 

  • Who creates the programs/activities? Ask if residents are able to make suggestions or provide feedback on programming they’d like to see offered.

  • Do you employ a certified therapeutic recreation specialist? This professional is skilled at implementing activities that improve or maintain physical, cognitive, social and emotional well-being.

  • How do you measure the effectiveness of your programs? The answer can help you pinpoint the physical and/or mental benefits staffers hope to see residents enjoy as a result of their wellness agenda.

  • How often are residents able to access the outdoors and fresh air?

  • Are nutritious meals and snacks offered? How much choice is available? If you or your loved one follows a special diet, be sure to ask if that can be accommodated.

  • Ask to speak with residents and their relatives. Are they happy with the care provided?

  • Observe how staff interacts with residents. Are they smiling and attentive or rushed and impersonal? Do the residents seem content?

  • Check for engagement. As you tour the facility and grounds, be sure to note if the residents are engaged in activities versus sitting watching television. 

  • Is the care person-centered and tailored to individual resident’s likes and needs? Or is it one approach for all? If you or your loved one requires support to participate in an activity, will that be provided?

Who to talk to while exploring a facility 

After meeting with a facility’s sales or marketing team, who will provide you with detailed information about the quantity and quality of recreational and social activities, you’ll want to meet with staffers who actually head up those activities. 

Talk to recreation and rehabilitation specialists. Brittany Ferri, occupational therapist and founder of Simplicity of Health, a Rochester, New York-based healthcare consulting company, says it is helpful to learn about recreational and social activities from the staffers who run them but about the rehabilitation disciplines — such as clinical psychology or occupational therapy — at the facility. 

“In particular, occupational therapists can give older adults one-to-one training focused on identifying meaningful activities and participating in them, despite any physical or mental health concern they may be living with,” she notes.

Speak with the direct care staff. FitzPatrick recommends speaking with the direct care staff, including nursing assistants who can outline a senior’s daily schedule and dining services team members who can share menu options and address any dietary needs your loved one may have.

How COVID has impacted activity programming

Doctor of behavioral health and social gerontologist Krystal L. Culler, founder of California-based Virtual Brain Health Center, which provides brain health services for aging adults, recommends asking staff about any changes that have occurred as a result of the pandemic. “Providers should be able to have an honest discussion about how their activity programs have been impacted and what they have done to-date to provide services to their residents,” says Culler. 

If fitness centers are closed, care communities may make adjustments — such as hosting chair yoga outdoors or streaming fitness videos into residents’ rooms — to help them stay active yet safe. If the grounds feature walking trails, ask if those remain open and if they have systems in place that will allow for social distance, allowing residents to exercise and enjoy fresh air and a change of scenery.

The bottom line on finding a facility that supports your loved one’s healthy lifestyle

Ultimately, it’s critical that you find a home, not simply a facility, notes Cini. “A senior living home will help you to stay connected both physically, spiritually and mentally,” she says, noting that its programs will help residents stay sharp, keep them smiling and feel less alone. By putting in the time to ensure that the facility you’re landing on is committed to doing just that, you can rest assured your loved one will enjoy a higher quality of life.