The evidence is in and it says that the senior years can be a time for celebration and even health improvement. Seniors between the ages of 65 and 79 are the happiest of all age groups, according to a U.K. study that surveyed more than 300,000 people. And while this stage of life is often associated with declined well-being, including loneliness and dementia, science is showing that specific lifestyle changes can turn that story around. A two-year randomized control study out of Finland in 2015, known as FINGER, found that improvements in diet, exercise and engaging in brain training in older adults at risk for dementia lowered that risk by 30 percent and even boosted their cognition.
“It was a landmark trial and went further to prove that we can control our risk of developing dementia, even if we have non-modifiable risk factors,” says Dr. Rhonda Collins, a medical expert in dementia care and Chief Medical Officer for Revera, a major provider of senior living communities across Canada.
Staying on top of all the good things needed for optimal health, including brain health, becomes harder to sustain for many older adults, especially those who live alone. The effort of maintaining your home, shopping, cooking and even the effort to stay connected with regular social activities outside of the home, particularly during the global pandemic, can become overwhelming.
“When you’re living alone, you may not have easy access to those things such as healthy meals, regular physical activity, or you may find it difficult to stay compliant with medications you’ve been prescribed,” says Dr. Collins. “Loneliness and isolation are hugely detrimental to older adults.”
This is why it is so important to start having conversations early with older loved ones about their lifestyle options for retirement and beyond and to assist them with gathering important information. Retirement homes allow active seniors to preserve their independence while also supporting a healthy lifestyle through a variety of services and activities that they choose. Dr. Collins has witnessed many seniors who have seen a marked change in their quality of life after making the move from their longtime home to a retirement community. Loneliness has been the most common motivator for their decision.
“They feel better. They feel safer and feel more engaged,” she says. “I’ve had family members say their parent is social again and who have seen an improvement in cognition.”
While starting to have “the talk” about retirement living options might feel like a big hill to climb for some families, the good news is that more than half of Canadian seniors see retirement homes as a support system that preserves their freedom, according to a new Angus Reid survey commissioned by Revera.
Another 43 percent of those surveyed believe retirement homes are for people who cannot live independently, although the reality is quite different. Retirement homes are distinct from long-term care homes, which provide supervised care around the clock and a highly structured environment. Seniors living in long-term care require significant assistance, supervision or are no longer able to take care of themselves on their own.
Retirement homes on the other hand are designed around flexibility and independence. Residents have their own suites, set their own schedules, and can come and go as they please. They can access a variety of dining services and menu choices, cook for themselves or blend the two. Whether they were a certified gourmet at-home chef or a lover of their local restaurant scene, residents will be impressed with the restaurant-quality dining options. And there is a broad range of amenities residents can choose from, including, movie theatres, golf simulators, libraries, art studios, fitness centres, swimming pools and games rooms.
“I feel very cozy here. If I feel like being with people I can go downstairs and mingle with them. You never need to feel lonely,” says Johanna Weinzettl, a retired hair salon owner who has made her home at Revera’s Westney Gardens community in Ajax since 2018. Her 700-square-foot, one-bedroom suite includes laundry facilities, a balcony and a full kitchen.
Johanna chose Westney Gardens after her husband Herbert entered longterm care due to progressing Alzheimer’s disease. Still healthy and self-sufficient, Johanna was able to focus on spending time with her husband, who she would drive to visit daily, without the burdens of maintaining the bungalow they had shared for 55 years. When Herbert died this year, Johanna found that living at Westney Gardens provided a ready support system that would not have been there had she still been in their former home. She continues to run a support group at Westney Gardens for other seniors coping with loss, acts as a welcome ambassador for new residents, and even helped out in the home’s salon during the pandemic; once a hairdresser, always a hairdresser, she says.
“Every period in your life needs something different,” says Johanna. “In my 80s, I can say that this is exactly what I need and want. It’s like living in a condo, but it’s so much more.”
Choosing a retirement home when a senior is still reasonably independent, as Johanna did, is ideal because it allows that person to research the full range of living options and to have the time to understand them, rather than having to rush a decision due to a personal crisis. “The earlier you start to plan, think and educate yourself, the easier that journey becomes,” says John Beaney, Revera’s Senior Vice President, Retirement. Whether it’s hotel-like luxury or a smaller, cozier environment, every Revera community has a different personality, characteristics, amenities and supportive services, such as its LiveWell personalized health and wellness program.
As for how to start talking about retirement living with an older loved one, Beaney suggests treating it like a normal conversation. Remember that the senior is in the driver’s seat—this is their choice—but help them understand that a retirement home is there to support their continued independence and is ready to partner with them to provide as many options as possible so they can carry on with their interests and even develop new ones .Encourage and support them to visit a variety of homes so that they can see the potential choices for themselves and become aware of the wide range of amenities. Revera staff are always happy to host in person visits but virtual tours are also possible.
They won’t know unless they see it,” says Beaney. “Make it a fun activity. Explore it. Join an event at the home if that makes it easier. Nobody needs to make a decision right away.”