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Bonita & Estero Magazine

Area Senior Facilities Inviting All Ages to Join Activities, Events

Apr 25, 2018 11:09PM
A local TV commercial a few years ago set a visionary tone. The ad featured a pre-teen boy learning how to dance like a gentleman, despite teasing by his sisters. The big reveal of his talents came when, at a family reunion dinner party, he crossed the patio and asked his grandmother to dance—at Shell Point, a retirement community in Fort Myers.

That heart-tugging spot was followed by ads featuring a Shell Point grandpa with a huge white mustache teaching his grandson about fishing and boat knots. Togetherness and sharing are big buzz words in an industry once associated with separation and loneliness.

As senior living centers evolve into comprehensive communities offering everything from independent and assisted living to skilled nursing and memory care, families of clients figure prominently in the social and business plans. Area senior communities that responded to our queries proudly say that residents’ adult children, grandchildren and other family members are warmly invited to meals and social events at and beyond their retirement facilities’ grounds.

Bruce Rosenblatt of Bonita Springs, owner and operator of Senior Housing Solutions, brings more than 30 years of experience advising families on senior housing and has a finger on the pulse of a growing local industry: “During the research stage, questions about guest policies, guest facilities, private dining options and if grandchildren are allowed do frequently get asked. Families want to know that their parents’ new home can still be a place for family gatherings.’’

Rosenblatt goes on to explain a core significance. “No one wants to live with one age group. Activities that include children interacting with residents helps residents feel young, and children learn to appreciate an older generation with much to share. We find this especially true when children teach residents about computers, smart phones and even Facebook and Twitter. 

“There are some communities that organize ‘senior proms’ that include residents and children. These are usually a big hit for all. There are other communities that will engage their veterans or Holocaust survivors to share real-life war stories with children. These always make a lasting impression on everyone,’’ he notes.

Sara McDonald, lifestyles manager at Bentley Care Center at Vi at Bentley Village in North Naples, says participation by family members is encouraged. “Our lifestyle department sends invitations out when we hold major events such as holiday and theme parties. When we meet with new residents or have family meetings, we reiterate that family is invited to participate in any resident group activity. … It’s important for our residents to maintain a sense of continuity in their social life with their family.’’

She adds, “Having family members meet with their loved ones in a social venue sets the stage for quality interaction. As families and residents meet each other in our lifestyle programs, they make friends and develop a sense of community. Being social and active at every stage of life is a strategic way of maintaining health … and a higher quality of life.

“Our most popular activity is our Friday afternoon social hour. We offer cocktails, soft drinks, snacks and live music, with a different theme and clothing color each week. Some of these families sit together regularly and form lasting friendships.”  

McDonald says veterans’ events are popular. “When we established a veterans’ wall for our residents who have served our country, many family members were in attendance. We also hold regular community church services in the Bentley Care Center, where family and residents can participate together.’’

Dana Eikenberg, director of lifestyles at The Terraces senior living community in Bonita, says families are invited to all on- and off-campus activities and more emphasis on that is forthcoming. To help get the word out, The Terraces is using closed-circuit TV and is developing an online app so families can prod parents to sign up—or families can make reservations for themselves. 

Family-friendly activities run the gamut from shows at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Center in Fort Myers to outings at gourmet restaurants and brew pubs, concerts at Bonita’s Riverside Park and tours of the Shangri-La Springs Resort & Spa in downtown Bonita, she says.

On the grounds of The Terraces, family-primed events include performers such as magicians, and lectures, birthday parties and daily mealtimes. That is designed, Eikenberg explains, for today’s clients and families as well as prospects for the future.   

Dr. Ronald T. Garry, a geriatric physician in Naples, says connectivity is simply good medicine. “I think it’s essential to include families in all aspects of aging, more importantly in senior housing such as assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. The nature of these facilities leads to more institutionalization. 

“A simple example is meals become very structured such that breakfast is at 8 a.m., lunch at noon and dinner at 5 p.m. These types of rigid schedules don't always work well with families who may still be working. When seniors are [still living at their] home, family members might be running errands—to the supermarket, picking up meds—for them that might lead to short but meaningful visits. Most facilities don't dissuade families from joining meals but don't actively promote it as well.’’

The physician advises, “Activities during the day can easily incorporate family members. A good example would be tai chi, which is not age specific. When it comes to dementia care, this becomes so much more important. The Alzheimer's patient who might be agitated because he or she doesn't fully understand what is going on, might be immediately comforted by seeing a familiar face—even if the patient can't recall the person’s name.’’

Garry is especially supportive and complimentary of the work done by the local Alzheimer’s Support Network Inc. The nonprofit organization helps all caregivers, including families who choose in-home care.

Shell Point marketing director Lynn Schneider reports a different twist: Rather than being planned, most family-friendly connections happen spontaneously. “Our residents have grandchildren, great-grandchildren, even great-greats, scattered all over the country and it is difficult to plan around that many schedules and varied interests,’’ she explains.

“We provide a beautiful community in a wonderful waterfront location that is filled with amenities that attracts family members to visit during their holidays and vacations. We have an almost 90-year-old resident who plays tennis every day. His son and two grandsons come play tennis with him several times a month here at Shell Point,’’ Schneider notes.

“Another example is a pair of twin boys who attend Cypress Lake High School and play on the golf team. They practice here at Shell Point every afternoon after school. Our residents enjoy seeing them and talking to them out on the driving range, etc.’’

One more instance of creative connectivity is with staff members’ children. This summer, a Shell Point Vacation Bible School will be held for them and put on by residents. It will offer a fun-filled week of recreational activities, Bible teachings, games, movies, snacks, dance, arts, crafts, science experiments and much more.

Meanwhile, concerning another family theme, Shell Point currently has numerous residents who had family members from previous generations at the retirement community in the past. “In other words, they moved to Shell Point because their grandparents, aunts and uncles, or perhaps parents lived here before them,” Schneider says. 

“They recalled years of visiting Shell Point to see these family members and fell in love with the community. Often, these multi-generational family members would be living here at the same time.

“In fact, my mother has lived here for more than a decade,” Schneider adds. “She lives independently and has a full and interesting life, filled with fun and friendships. Every Christmas and birthday, she writes on her cards to us, ‘Thank you for bringing me to Shell Point.’ ”

‘Waterboys’ Keeps Friendships Flowing

Vi at Bentley Village in North Naples provides a quintessential vignette of the term “family friendly.’’ Resident Mike Stanton, 90, is a dedicated helper all over campus and the longest-tenured member of the “Waterboys.” They are a team of volunteers, under the supervision of professional staff, who don baseball caps and nametags to deliver pitchers of ice and water daily to patients at the skilled care center that is part of the campus.

Their clients are glad to see them, Stanton says, and often don’t want the Waterboys to leave. Stanton, a World War II and Korea military pilot, says the experience—he has been doing it for 11 years—is especially appreciated by patients who have no local family members. The Waterboys provide a welcome contact with someone other than staff members. The Waterboys become like family.

That resonates on another level for Stanton, whose wife, Ann, 82, is a resident of the skilled care center. “It’s always a special moment—a real treat—to be together,’’ he says of visits to Ann’s room.

The Stanton family connection goes one step further, when daughter Sarah Andre, of nearby Bonita Bay, comes to Bentley Village for weekly social hours, for example. “I visit Mom each Friday—unless they're on lockdown for the flu, like the last couple of weeks,” she says.

“It's become the highlight of my week, not just seeing Mom but chatting with the other residents and guests. They've all become like an extended family to us and the routine of a Friday afternoon visit centers me somehow.’’

There is live music, singing and dancing. “It's zany and high energy and focused on living and laughter,’’ Andre adds. “I was a speech pathologist who worked in nursing homes for 10 years in my youth. I have never been to a care center that is this much fun and focused on positive patient interaction. 

“We've even had residents from assisted living regularly come to the care center cocktail hour because ours is so much more fun.’’

Written by Jeff Lytle, the retired editorial page editor and TV host from Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.