There’s a senior center where elderly residents aren’t just playing an occasional game of bingo and eating mediocre cafeteria food, but where they are checking dreams off their bucket lists and socializing. “When you are 85, 88, or 89 years old, that does not mean that you are done thinking, done dreaming, and done doing things that you’ve never done before or always wanted to do,” said Lou Woolf, CEO of Hebrew Senior Life (HSL).
The residents at HSL, mostly those in independent living and assisted living, participate in the Vitalize 360 program in which they annually discuss their physical, mental, spiritual and social health with a coach. “It’s a very comprehensive assessment of how things are going,” said Woolf. The residents set a goal with their coach and then put together a plan in order to attain it. “What is on your bucket list? Let’s do that,” Woolf urged.
He cited a 94-year-old woman who always wanted to ride a horse but never had the opportunity as an example. Other anecdotes included a resident that had a granddaughter getting married and wanted to be able to travel to the wedding and dance, and some residents who would simply like to make more friends. “People set goals and then they put a plan together to work toward that goal,” said Woolf.
According to Woolf, he aspires to have a positive perspective permeate the organization by including specific programs such as Vitalize 360. An independent living community at HSL called Orchard Cove has
250 residents at an average age of over 90, and 89% of them work out three times a week. “It’s remarkable for a population that age,” said Woolf.
Woolf related an anecdote where a 103-year-old resident of the Simon C. Fireman building, another HSL community, went to the Quincy district court to testify in a case where someone had tried to steal her
pocketbook. She and a friend were sitting on a bench in the Quincy district court getting read to testify when the clock struck 11. The resident immediately stood up and began doing her exercises and stretching when a nearby man asked what she was doing. She said, “It’s 11 o’clock, it’s time for my daily exercises.” Her coach told her she had to do them every day to reach her goal, and she wasn’t going to let anything get in her way of reaching it. “We have things like that happen all the time,” said Woolf.
“Just because someone appears to be older and maybe in mid-stages of dementia, there is a perception that they are no longer capable of a lot,” said Woolf. Perhaps they may not be as physically capable as they were 30 years ago. But regarding mental capacity, HSL maintains a positive outlook by assuming the best. In fact, they encourage their residents to continue to participate in activities they enjoyed when they were younger and to engage in new experiences.
Woolf is constantly meeting inspiring residents. Four months after a resident with damaged teeth moved in to the Hebrew Rehab Center, she inquired if the dental program could fix her teeth. The hygienist working with her at the time asked how long her teeth had been that way. The resident responded, “Decades. As long as I can remember.” The hygienist asked out of curiosity, “Why now?” The resident
said that in this environment she meets so many new people and hasn’t had this kind of opportunity to make friends for years, so she wanted to smile and make a good impression in her new social circle. “That was an incredibly proud moment,” said Woolf.
The annual HSL fundraiser, EngAGE, will headline Lesley Stahl, an award-winning 60 Minutes correspondent and Judy Collins, best-selling author and Grammy winning singersongwriter. The event raises money for HSL, including healthcare, communities, and research. In a 60 Minutes segment with Stahl featuring Dr. Claudia Kawas of the University of California, they discussed a research project called “90+,” in which 1,600 people over 90 were examined physically and cognitively every six months.
Kawas discovered 14,000 residents of a retirement community in California who had filled out detailed questionnaires about their diet, activities, vitamin intake, and medical history back in the early 1980s. The team tracked down 1,600 of them to research, and their findings speculate as to what lifestyle habits determine which of us will make it past age 90.
“It’s very consistent with our philosophies on aging,” said Lou Woolf. According to Woolf, those consistencies include people taking care of themselves, eating well and exercising, but more importantly continuing to have meaning and purpose in their life and setting goals for themselves. “Our goal with EngAGE is really to elevate the conversation about seniors and have people look at seniors differently,” said Woolf.
According to Woolf, the facility consistently maintains, promotes, and discusses the concept of redefining aging with staff, residents and their families. Despite being out of the work force, their kids grown into
adulthood, and facing their own mortality, the residents at HSL have a sense of purpose and adventure in life.