Getting Older, Getting Wiser by Isabella Cigna

Imagine the inside of a typical hospital. The beds are lined with stark white sheets, the hallway lights hum with white brightness. There is a distinct smell of sanitizer that constantly sticks to the inside of one’s nose. Everything is clean and everything is in place. For many elders in America, this is what “home” looks like.

Now, imagine a giant, yellow, repurposed church, nestled comfortably in the middle of a strip of road that is lined with local shops and offices. If the bright paint and twinkly Christmas lights on the exterior do not say enough about the building, the inside speaks even more. Original artwork covers the walls, Christmas decorations are set up in every empty corner, and every room is filled with warmth and color.

“When my daughter and I saw this place, we knew this was it for me,” said Marcia, a resident at the Ethan Allen Residence of Living Well Group in Burlington, Vt. “What is there not to like about it? I like everything,” said Marcia.

People in the United States can expect to live to be about 78.6-years-old, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In 2017, senior citizens made up nearly 16 percent of the population, and that number is quickly rising, according to Statista.

“I come from a family of doctors… so my brain was trained to treat [aging] like a disease, with medication, like it’s something you need to fix,” said Cameron Segal, Development and Program Manager at Living Well Group. “And that just never really made sense to me, because people are living so long these days.”

Segal studied neuroscience and psychology at University of Vermont for his undergraduate degree, and minored in gerontology, which is the study of aging. In his classes, he said that he learned the value of maintaining brain activity in the later years of life.

“Your brain needs to do things to not die,” said Segal. “It’s use it or lose it, that’s the neuroscience layman’s terms, so if we can get our residents to use their brain, that’s good for them.”

There is, however, a difference between entertainment and engagement, Segal said. “If it’s just a show, you’re not really reaching the individual watching it, but if we bring in specialists, who have been trained to engage with the person listening, everybody gets a lot more out of the experience,” he said. Living Well Group is so open to doing new and different things,” Segal said, as he talked about plans to bring virtual reality to the residents of Living Well Group. Unique programs like these are not uncommon at Living Well Group.

Topaz Weis is an expressive arts facilitator from Expressive Arts Burlington who comes to Ethan Allen residence once a week to lead art classes. “Close your eyes and go to a beautiful place and what do you see?”

Weis guides residents through a series of questions that prompt them to think of people, places, and memories. They visualize, then verbalize, then materialize.

“We’re working with various different types of expression to have a more “whole- brain” experience, because all of these various different processes use a different part of the brain, so it’s kind of like a brain massage to do expressive work,” Weis said.

Marcia is a frequent attendee to these classes. “I don’t call myself an artist, I call myself a person that has artistic abilities,” she said. “But I always like to do it with people. When you’re focused on art, you’re really focused. You know? So I love that.”

Every day there are different activities that give residents the opportunity to stimulate brain activity, from yoga to music therapy to even flower arranging. Susan Herrick, certified music therapist and Program Director at Ethan Allen Residence, said, “this way, instead of just being delivered flowers, they get to arrange them themselves and then deliver them to each other’s rooms. It’s really cool.”

“Rhythm is one of the last things that go when people have dementia, so it’s something that almost everyone can be engaged with,” said Ali Gauthier, Activities Coordinator at Ethan Allen Residence. “It’s amazing, you know, someone who like can’t really talk anymore, you throw on some Elvis and give them a drum and they are just like spot on. It just makes them feel really good.”

These activities, and the downtime in between, provide more than just brain activity for the elders, though. “I think the love that’s here compared to other jobs that I’ve had makes it really unique,” said Gauthier. “It’s really cute, sometimes one of them will get out to go to the dollar store or whatever and they’ll bring back candy and stuff and share with each other. They’ll knock on their doors like, ‘oh, I got you this tootsie roll from the dollar store,’ and they’ll be like, ‘oh thank you, that’s so nice!’ and then they’ll show me later like, ‘look what Marcia got me!’ So that’s kind of cute that they do stuff like that.”

“For me, I can’t walk from one end of the place to the other without stopping and talking to multiple residents, which I think is awesome,” said Segal. The sense of community and care at Living Well Group is what made him want to work there in the first place. “My role isn’t even to be with the residents, but because I just want to do it and because I just love the residents, I do it.”

“[Their roommates] become their family,” said Segal about the relationships that develop among residents. “There’s this pair of residents on the second floor who always stay up until like 3 a.m. together watching TV. They have the room right next to the cards table so they go and play cards, too.”

Marcia said that since coming to Ethan Allen, she has noticed a change in her life. “Before, when you’re on your own, you gotta do everything by yourself and it’s very tiring and lonely,” she said. “Whereas here, I always have somebody with me. It’s really lovely.”

Gauthier explained the value that she sees in her role at Living Well Group. “Just to chit chat, and catch up, have coffee with someone, it’s important because that is their life,” said Gauthier. “You think about you and I, you know, our life after work, we’re hanging out with our friends, we’re calling our mom, we’re going out to dinner, we’re going out dancing, whatever. But like, what do they have? What is their life? And that’s why I think my job
is so important because I can give them that companionship and it lets them know that they do have someone there for them who does care, and I just think that’s just huge. As human beings, I think it’s really important to have that connection.”

“Living Well Group just understands what people need,” said Segal. “I never thought I would be working at a place like this and I certainly wouldn’t be working at any other assisted living facility because it’s just wouldn’t be the same.”

Aging is a natural process that the body goes through as time goes on. Yet oftentimes, people forget that the elderly need not just to be kept alive, but also to live and be well. Places like Living Well Group give them the chance to do this, and to live out the rest of their lives to the fullest.

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