CANTON — At Orchard Cove, the residents are into fitness. Nearly three-quarters of them take aerobic classes, lift weights, or practice yoga and balance techniques. These seniors exercise to feel good and, in many cases, to fulfill loftier goals.
A lifelong fitness enthusiast, Sylvia Namyet, 88, supplemented her regular yoga practice with new routines to help her balance. Her long-term goal involved making a solo cross-country trip to visit adult children in Oregon and California. After a year of physical conditioning, she finally did it last year, the first time she had traveled alone in 45 years.
A year ago, Natalie Waterman, 86, started exercising on a daily basis. She dropped more than 30 pounds, putting an end to years of immobility and isolation following a hip injury at 81. Today Waterman favors New Balance sneakers and exercise classes that fit her busy schedule. She has become a socialite within the community, and she rarely spends a day alone.
These active residents are taking part in a pilot wellness program called Vitality 360, which uses computerized tools to evaluate and track the physical, emotional, and mental health of seniors, and helps them meet individual goals with personal coaching and follow-up. The information collected is contributed to a national database of research.
Vitality 360 is part of an ambitious project called Collage, which was created in 2003 as a joint venture between Hebrew SeniorLife’s Institute for Aging Research, a nonprofit affiliated with Harvard Medical School, and Kendal Outreach, a nonprofit arm of the Kendal Corp., a system of services and communities for older adults in eight states. Collage has been developing a suite of assessment tools and programs, such as Vitality 360, to optimize well-being for older adults.
With people living longer and elder housing providers looking to improve their offerings to seniors seeking active lives, Vitality 360 gives Orchard Cove an edge among assisted-living communities because it offers data, via Collage, that proves the goal-setting program improves health and life satisfaction among residents — a real selling point as well as an innovative concept.
The aim is to change the way we think about aging, said John N. Morris, director of social and health policy research at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Institute for Aging Research. Collage has gathered health and wellness profiles on more than 10,000 adults 65 and older at 60 retirement communities and aging housing locations in 20 states, he said.
At Orchard Cove, seniors are more upbeat, active, and happier with life after embracing fitness and other challenging goals as participants in Vitality 360, which is in keeping with national data, according to Morris. He said the data show that people are more positive and their lives are better when they set goals and those goals are reinforced.
“This is a revolutionary concept. It is about reaching out to healthy elders and asking, ‘How can we go forward in a way that might work differently?’” he said.
Aline Russotto, executive director of Orchard Cove, a Hebrew SeniorLife community, said it has been exciting to track the health and wellness benefits for seniors participating in Vitality 360.
“We are seeing a tremendous increase in our fitness programs because seniors want to possess the physical capacity to do the things they care about,” she said.
Ninety percent of Orchard Cove’s 240 residents have joined Vitality 360, and the number of residents exercising has climbed from 30 percent to more than 75 percent since the pilot program’s launch at the site three years ago, Russotto said.
Other Hebrew SeniorLife communities are adopting Vitality 360, including Center Communities of Brookline, NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, and the Jack Satter House in Revere. The program is also operating at Kendal at Hanover, N.H., a retirement community located near Dartmouth College.
“We can think of aging in a different way. The population is getting older and people are more active later; why not help them to see themselves as vital?” said Mindy Gradofsky-Gilmore, a social worker at Orchard Cove.
“Our program is raising the bar for seniors,” Russotto said. “At this stage in life, seniors are dealing with loss — loss of role, loss of family, loss of friends, loss of spouse. We help to empower them again. We focus on what they can still do. They can still have goals. It is not just about what happened in their lives but what will happen, and how they can direct that.”
Namyet joined the Vitality 360 program at Orchard Cove two years ago after the death of her husband, Saul, a retired Northeastern professor of civil engineering. The couple lived in Sharon for 45 years and together at Orchard Cove for seven more.
“’I don’t want you to forget the outside world. I want you to stay busy,’” Namyet recalls her husband telling her near the end of his life. Yet in the weeks following his death, she was at a loss, she says, and found herself thinking: “What do I do with my life?”
Vitality 360 begins with a one-hour conversation with a personal coach, and Namyet said it helped her imagine a future. “I realized what they are telling us is so true — it is nice to look on our lives, if we’re lucky, but we have to now sit down and look at our future and literally plan a goal,” she said.
Namyet set the goal of visiting her children on the West Coast. She worked on her balance, which was shaky, kept up with daily yoga, prepared travel plans, and made the journey. She also took part in a variety of committees at Orchard Cove.
“I let myself get more involved again,” said Namyet, who in younger years was involved as a member of the School Committee in Sharon and the League of Women Voters.
Her coach also encouraged Namyet to gather her watercolor artwork and begin painting once more. “The program is keeping me going. It has encouraged us to do a lot of things,” she said, adding that community is an essential component.
“If Orchard Cove wasn’t here, if I lived by myself, I don’t think I would be alive. I don’t think you can live without this kind of atmosphere. It is friendly, familial, a home,” she said.
Russotto said the assessment tool in Collage is allowing the success of Vitality 360 to be tracked, which is crucial. Fitness is a main component, she said, but it is motivated by goals that are often larger such as writing a memoir, or volunteering in the community, or playing a leadership role in one’s family, and wanting to possess the physical capacity to do these things.
“What we’re seeing through our program is that seniors are becoming more active, more involved, and reporting greater satisfaction in the quality of their life and greater satisfaction in their health. We’re seeing that we have a tremendous increase in participation in our fitness programs,” Russotto said. “As more communities use a program like Vitality 360, we will be able to prove outcomes for the senior population.”
One Orchard Cove resident, for example, wanted to get to her daughter’s wedding, so she embraced a fitness schedule to regain necessary balance and endurance.
“The conversation with the coach allows residents to stop and really think about what’s important to them,” Russotto said. “I think this resident decided attending her daughter’s wedding was important because she realized she wants to leave a legacy for her family; she wants to be matriarch.”
For Waterman, who moved to Orchard Cove a year ago, the Vitality 360 program helped her get out into the world again. At 81, she broke her hip, retired as on-site owner of Prime Cleaners in Canton and West Roxbury, and, for five years lived alone in her Newton home. It was a lonely time — until she moved to Orchard Cove and signed on with its wellness program.
“I like to be involved,” Waterman said in a recent interview.
Namyet, listening to her friend’s account of those solitary years, nodded.
“Can I just say that must have been hell? She’s a people person,” said Namyet. “Since she’s been here, she’s made more friends than anyone I know.”
Today Waterman does several types of aerobics classes per week and uses the weight machines as well. Exercise has helped her mentally and socially; she has indeed made many friends.
“She’s our star right now,” said Namyet, smiling at Waterman.Meg Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.