Gone are the days of institution-like nursing facilities with elders lining the halls in wheelchairs and walkers. Walk into Parkway Place, a Buckner senior living community, and you’ll find seniors competing in Wii bowling competitions, taking Tai Chi classes or learning to zumba.
Rachel Ramirez, Parkway Place director of wellness, has engineered state-of-the-art fitness programs to help keep seniors active and healthy throughout their retirement. Emma Sullinger, who is in her 70s, is one of the community’s biggest fitness enthusiasts, although she does it more out of discipline than enjoyment.
“I’ve made it a priority because I know how important it is but I don’t really exercise because I enjoy it,” she says, laughing. “Because if you’re doing it just because you like it and then one day you stop liking it, what are you doing to do?”
Sullinger attends Tai Chi classes twice a week, and also works out on various machines three times a week for about an hour each day. She says she regularly encourages friends and fellow residents to work out and to stay healthy.
“I’ve had back problems since college so I’ve known most of my life that I’ve needed to keep up some kind of exercise,” she says. “I’ve never been an athlete … It’s nothing I really enjoy but from the beginning, I’ve known it was important to do.”
Sullinger credits Ramirez with creating classes and programs that pique her interest and help keep her motivated to exercise. She knows Ramirez doesn’t have an easy job “trying to get people to do something they don’t really want to do.”
More than half of the residents take advantage of Parkway Place’s fitness activities. At any given time, you’ll find them leg pressing, walking on treadmills or splashing around in the water aerobics classes.
“I try to reach out to the residents as much as I can,” Ramirez says. “I especially pay attention to newer residents or the ones who seem a bit down. Wellness is optional so I want to be able to know the residents, even if they don’t come, because if they ever do, we’ll already have a relationship.”
Ramirez studied exercise and sports science with an emphasis in health and wellness in college but wasn’t sure what she would do with her degree once she finished. On a trip with her church, she helped some seniors and noticed they were having a hard time pouring half a gallon of milk. And then it clicked.
“I just thought, there has to be some way to help keep seniors healthy, active and independent,” she says.
She happened to have a friend who worked at a retirement community so she went to visit and saw she could be a wellness director. After college, she did an internship and fell in love.
“I love working with seniors and hearing all the wisdom and stories they have. They’re a lot of fun.”