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Elder care activity therapist keeps seniors active and healthy

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Not long ago, elderly residents in rehab centers were limited to passive activities like coffee klatches, knitting and sing-a-longs. But now, despite walkers and wheelchairs, seniors are finding new expression in yoga and drumming classes, computer courses, art workshops and dancing. “People assume that older adults don’t want to do anything but watch TV, but actually if given the option, they enjoy different activities,” said Julie Wade, 45, a recreational therapist and “community life leader” at Hebrew Rehabilitation’s NewBridge on the Charles campus in Dedham. Research suggests that the arts and other expressive outlets provide emotional and physical benefits for older adults, improving cognition, aiding mobility, and making participants feel valued.

The goal of a senior housing community is to support the health and independence of residents, as well as encourage a sense of community. Wade says that while the long-term care population she works with is often old and frail, they still enjoy having fun, and haven’t lost their competitive spirit. “You don’t see many 90-year-old woman playing field hockey in a chair, but they’ll be laughing and hooting and hollering,” said Wade, who has a degree in physical education. The facility also partners with the Rashi School to encourage an intergenerational campus where young and old learn and socialize together. “No matter how old, there are always life lessons to share,” said Wade.

Q: You’ve worked in elder care for over 17 years. What keeps you going?
A: These folks have such incredible life stories and a wonderful sense of humor. They have taught me never to take anything for granted. A lot of them have vision loss so they can’t even see me but they’ll say, “Oh, Julie, I know you’re there.” It’s like having 300 grandparents.

Q: How do you work with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients?
A: Breaking down a project into step-by-step helps make it less overwhelming. If I’m going to do a current event program, for example, instead of reading the whole article, I’ll read the headline and then focus on some quick sentences. Or, I’ll enlarge a crossword to a poster-size wall graphic and do one word at a time. It’s important to use more body language and visual aids.

Q: How do you encourage residents to get involved?
A: If a resident is a loner, that’s fine, I just try to check in and make sure they’re choosing to be alone and that it’s a healthy isolation. Maybe they’re daydreaming, reading a book or people watching. But sometimes seniors have lost spouse and friends and don’t feel like making friends with strangers. I’ll encourage them to get out and as their confidence and comfort level builds up, they may join the group.

Q: Elderly women are more likely than men to be in senior housing. How do men feel about being in the minority?
A: Sometimes there are one or two man in a unit of 12-14 residents. Some men are treated like kings and sit at the head of the table; other men are like, “I’m going crazy. I have all these women around me.”

Q: What do you think you’ll be doing when you’re 82?
A: I’ll be telling everyone to leave me alone – no, only kidding. I’ll be taking naps, eating all the bad food that they tell me not to eat, and hopefully all the 88-year-old men will be chasing me around.

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