As you may know, Immanuel Lutheran Communities recently opened a new fitness center and exercise classroom at Buffalo Hill Terrace.  Independent and Assisted Living residents now have 24-hour access to a variety of high-quality fitness equipment as well as several scheduled exercise classes each day.  While Buffalo Hill Terrace has always offered fitness classes, the new center greatly expands its offerings.  Fitness-conscious residents like Lois McClaren now have a place to go where they can improve their health, every day, no matter the weather, without leaving their homes.

With this new Fitness Center comes a new Fitness Coordinator, Todd Roush.  Todd is a key part of Immanuel’s fitness strategy, and he has many interesting things to say about fitness for seniors and life at Immanuel.  I recently had an opportunity to talk with Todd, and I’d like to share what I learned from and about him.

Todd is a Montana native who grew up in the Flathead Valley.  He moved to Washington state for college and graduated in 2015 from Eastern Washington University with a degree in Exercise Science.  After college, he worked in physical therapy, first in Idaho and then, when he decided it was time to come home, here in Kalispell.  For a while, he directed a work rehab program, helping people who had been injured get ready to go back to work.

Todd’s current role as a fitness coordinator in a retirement community is not what he originally planned for his life.  When he graduated with his Exercise Science degree, he planned to work with athletes.  His earliest work experience didn’t steer him toward seniors, either—he interned at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and focused during that time on cardiac and exercise physiology for children. But in his time working in physical therapy, he began to enjoy working with older adults.  Simple statistics show that we are more likely to get injured as we get older, so Todd found that many of his clients were seniors.  When the opportunity at Immanuel became available, he knew it was a direction he wanted to take.

Todd likes working with seniors because his clients have been many places and had many experiences, but they are still open to learning new things.  “I get to teach them more,” Todd said, noting how honored he feels to have something to offer to people who already know so much.  He also likes the challenge presented by working with over 100 unique individuals.  Each client’s needs are unpredictable, and Todd has to find new ways to help them.  In physical therapy, he noted, each type of injury could be treated in a fairly typical way.  But when coaching seniors in fitness, Todd has to take each individual’s daily needs into account in order to “plan a unique route for each resident for improving health.”

For seniors who want to improve their health, Todd recommends that they not be afraid to try new things.  He encourages his clients not to be afraid of change and new opportunities.  The fitness center is full of new, unfamiliar-looking equipment, but those who try it usually like it.  Like all new things, it takes some getting used to.  That goes for classes, too.  But even as they try new things, Todd cautions, seniors should be aware of their limitations and not push themselves too far (this is good advice for everyone!).  It’s important to practice exercise safely, and Todd’s available to help residents figure out how to do so.

Living in a community like Immanuel provides residents with unique fitness opportunities, Todd notes.  Residents have easy access to a wide variety of fitness opportunities, and they don’t even have to go outside to get to them.  That’s especially nice in this winter weather we’ve been having lately!  They can also come whenever they want, including early in the morning and late at night.  Because there are no restrictions on when residents can use the equipment in the fitness center, they can truly improve their health at their own paces and on the schedules that work best for them.

Another advantage of living in a community is the longer-term relationships residents can form with their fitness professional.  While he’s only been at Immanuel for a few months, Todd is already getting to know the residents.  These relationships are one of things he’s coming to like best about his job.  “This is a huge benefit,” he said.

Looking beyond Immanuel, Todd thinks that the Valley in general could use more senior-friendly fitness opportunities. Residents here have wonderful opportunities and resources available to them now, but that isn’t true for the Valley at large.  Even hospital-affiliated fitness centers don’t have the options for seniors that Immanuel has.  It’s important to Todd to keep building awareness and knowledge about how people can stay fit throughout their lives, and he’s thrilled to have the opportunity to do that here at Immanuel.

If he’s not teaching, Todd is usually in his office in the fitness center.  He’s always available to help residents with the equipment and to answer questions for staff, as well.  It’s important to him that people don’t worry about bugging him—“I’m here to be bugged!” he said, so feel free to stop by!

When I walk the halls of Buffalo Hill Terrace, I frequently encounter one particular couple strolling along hand-in-hand.  They’re at ease in each other’s company, and they are almost always together.   I haven’t gotten to know these particular residents personally, but their love for each other is apparent.  Though I don’t know their love story, it’s clear that they have one and that it’s ongoing.

There are a lot of lifelong love stories in our community.  One of my favorites was told to me by a resident who has since passed away.  When his wife of many years passed away over a year before he did, he began carrying their wedding photo with him.  Any time he had the opportunity, he would show it and tell the story of how they met.  When both of them were in college, they attended a dance.  She went with his best friend and he went with her sorority sister.  By the end of the night, this resident told me, “We had each other but we didn’t have those friends any more.”  They’d been together ever since.

Immanuel is full of love stories like this.  High school sweethearts Fred and Shelby Thompson supported each other in decades-long careers and now travel the world together, using their apartment in The Villas at Buffalo Hill as their base.  In every story Fred and Shelby tell about their lives (and they tell a lot of wonderful stories!), they are together, and their joy and ease in each other’s company is apparent even from casual interactions.

And then there are relationships that are no less strong for being shorter in duration.  David and Martha Maurer knew each other and dated a bit in high school, but they didn’t marry until five years ago.  In the mean time, they both married and had families with other people.  When they reconnected, it quickly became apparent that they wanted to spend the next phase of their lives together (with their dog Toby, of course).  When they moved to Kalispell, they came together, and they moved together to Buffalo Hill Terrace.

Though couples of course prefer to share a home for as long as possible,  there are times when one member of a couple’s health needs change more rapidly than the other’s.  One of the great things about a community like Immanuel is that the spouse who needs more care can move to an appropriate level of living while the other remains in an independent or assisted living apartment.  I know several spouses who make their way each day from Buffalo Hill Terrace to the Lodge at Buffalo Hill or the Immanuel Skilled Care Center to spend time with their husband or wife.  The person’s physical or cognitive condition has changed, but the love is still there.

Many couples hope to have the kind of lasting love we see every day here at Immanuel.  Valentine’s Day is a wonderful time to reflect on these kinds of relationships and to think more about how we create communities where they thrive.  I hope you had a wonderful Valentine’s Day celebrating with your loved ones—and that you celebrate many more!

Lois McClaren and her husband, Bill, moved to Kalispell in 1955.  Bill had just graduated with his teaching certificate, and he’d been sending resumes all over the country.  He received an offer for a position teaching math at Flathead County High School (now Flathead High School) via telegram.  The couple had to look at a map to see where Kalispell was, but they decided to take the plunge and make the move sight unseen!  Lois has lived here happily ever since.

The Flathead Valley was the perfect location for the McClaren family because they love to be outdoors.  Lois and Bill chose the job in Kalispell—Bill had several other offers—because they wanted to be among mountains and lakes, and they knew they would find that here.  They quickly developed a love of hiking in the area, and as time went on and their family grew, they shared this love with their four children.

While there are many beautiful places to hike around the Flathead Valley, Lois’s favorite location is Glacier National Park.  Lois remembers the days when Glacier wasn’t quite so busy.  She liked it even better then because it was quieter and more peaceful.  She and Bill would frequently take their children and join friends for hikes in the park, including one particularly memorable very long one.  The kids didn’t complain—they loved being outside and active. 

The natural beauty made the hikes even more enjoyable, and it helped maintain the kids’ interest as they hiked.  “If anyone’s bored in this country, it’s their own fault,” Lois commented as she told us about the many hikes her family took together.  The McClarens have wandered a lot in Glacier and in other local areas, but they’ve never been lost, and while they saw bears on their hikes, they never met one.  Their hikes in Glacier have always been fun, positive experiences, and Lois still goes to the park whenever she can.

Lois continues to enjoy walking and hiking.  She can be seen almost every morning, in all kinds of weather, walking the sidewalks around her Buffalo Hill Terrace home.  When she can, she also likes to go to Heron Park to hike the extensive trails there.  And all this walking isn’t just about pleasure for Lois.  She knows exercise is important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially as one ages.  That’s why she goes to every exercise class the Terrace offers, except yoga, which isn’t her thing.  On yoga days, she swims.

Though she’s always loved the outdoors, Lois hasn’t always been this health-conscious.  It wasn’t until Bill had some heart problems about thirty years ago that she really started paying attention.  Shortly after that event, their daughter ran a 5K, and Bill and Lois decided to start doing them, too.  They traveled all around Montana doing 5Ks and even went to the Senior Olympics. 

Though Lois and Bill started pursuing exercise seriously to help Bill’s health, it became a real passion, and Lois continues to participate in various forms of exercise because she truly enjoys them.  When asked what she enjoys so much about her physical activities, Lois replies, “You might hurt or be tired, but once it’s over you just want to go out and do it again.” 

If we are lucky, we will all eventually become seniors.  Aging is just a part of life.  Unfortunately, in our culture we often view aging through a negative lens and treat the oldest among us with less dignity and respect than they deserve.  Sometimes, we assume they’re kind of dumb or treat them like children unable to think and fend for themselves.  If you think about it, this is weird.  When we’re children, teenagers, and young adults, we hear constantly that we just don’t know enough yet, that we don’t have the life experience and wisdom to make good choices or to do what we want to do.  And then this all becomes true again, apparently, once we turn seventy or so.  In this framing, everyone is almost always either too young or too old to know their own mind.  This puts all of us in a bind for most of our lives.

Of course, we know that seniors certainly do have the wisdom and life experience to make their own decisions.  And we always need to respect their choices.  Sometimes, though, there’s a fine line between respecting someone’s choices and making sure they get the help they need.  In a recent blog post on balancing combatting ageism with insuring seniors have appropriate resources, Robyn I. Stone of the LeadingAge Long-Term Services and Supports Center writes, “Our bodies and functional abilities do change after a certain age.  That means we may require far different interventions to maintain our biological, psychological, and social well-being at age 80 than we did at age 21.”

Stone’s quote resonated with me because of a couple of interactions I’ve had recently with residents who are struggling with their increasingly limited physical abilities.  As a professional in a senior-living community, it’s important to me to respect residents’ statements about what they want and need.  But it’s also vital to make sure they’re safe.  Sometimes, that means helping them, or finding someone trained to offer a particular kind of assistance (since I’m not clinical staff), even when they say they don’t want help.  This can be hard.  I’ve heard residents express embarrassment as well as frustration because they cannot safely do what they’re used to doing.  Sometimes, they try to do it anyway.

At Immanuel, I think we’re very good at balancing insuring residents’ safety with respecting residents’ autonomy.  How do we do this?  Well, mostly it’s about compassion.  If I’ve been talking with a resident who then needs help to stand even though she doesn’t want it, I need to find someone trained to help her safely.  But I can also continue the conversation we were having about something else entirely.  And I can listen when she wants to express frustration with her situation.  That resident might have some physical difficulties, but she is so much more than the sum of her physical difficulties.  My coworkers and I know that, and we know that sometimes it helps a lot just to acknowledge that the situation just stinks.  Caregiving staff can kindly and matter-of-factly offer physical assistance (some of our CNAs are incredibly good at this!) and then residents can get on with their days.

Residents know very well that their bodies are not the same at 80 as they were at 21.  There’s no need for us to tell them that.  All we need to do is interact with them as individuals instead of numbers (ages).  I think it also helps to remember that if we’re lucky, we’ll all be seniors someday.  We surely want both autonomy and safety, and it is possible to have both.