Today’s Coral Gables senior living communities are much more than yesterday’s “retirement homes,” with activities and programs scientifically designed to keep older folks engaged, healthy, smart, and happy.
Dolores “Lola” Domit sits at the bar of The Palace chatting with her friends. Soft jazz plays in the background as the ladies discuss everything from politics to their plans for the week. Other residents enter the foyer and take their seats as happy hour begins. The buzz of conversation falls over the room. Snippets of discussion about a recent lecture on ChatGPT emerge while a debate about medical marijuana continues a few tables over.
Domit orders another glass of pinot grigio and smiles. After working as a diplomat for many years, there’s nothing she loves more than good conversation. In fact, it’s probably one of her favorite things about living at The Palace. There’s never a shortage of good conversation or good company.
According to the CDC, isolation and loneliness can be deadly for seniors. Self-reported loneliness is associated with an increased risk of dementia, stroke, and heart disease, along with other health complications. That’s why senior living communities like The Palace are so vital to healthy aging; they foster social interaction and reinforce a sense of community and belonging among seniors.
“You can hire a chef. You can hire a nurse. You can hire a housekeeper, a driver, whatever. But you can’t hire friends. That is why this community exists,” says Haim Dubitzky, principal and vice president of performative excellence at The Palace Group. “Socialization, talking to people, interacting… that is the number one thing that keeps people healthy, active, and stimulated.”
Patricia Will, founder and CEO of Belmont Village, agrees with Dubitzky. She also believes that consistent social interaction contributes to a longer and higher quality lifespan. “It’s not just the mental aspect of health that loneliness affects. We have research that shows that isolation actually impacts the immune system and cognitive function,” says Will, who also sits on the board at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California. “When you’re in an environment where you’re fully engaged, firing on all cylinders, you’re much more likely to stave off the effects of cognitive decline.”
The Palace, like other senior living communities, seeks to make social interaction as easy as possible for its residents. This means removing some of the prohibitive barriers to interaction that seniors living by themselves might encounter making plans, driving, walking longer distances, etc. “It’s just easier for residents. They’re already going to come down and eat dinner, and at least here they may bump into 30 people on their way down. Then they have someone to eat with,” says Dubitzky.
Daily happy hours, organized brunches, water aerobics, pottery classes, farmer’s markets, speed dating events, and lectures on everything from WWI to the latest iPhone are just a few of the ways Miami’s senior living communities create a sense of community among their residents.
Exercise and Nutrition
Some communities like East Ridge at Cutler Bay try to combine social interaction with physical activity. Lauren Pazo, in charge of community outreach marketing at East Ridge, says the community’s walking club is a hit among residents.
“Sometimes in the mornings when I’m pulling up, I see all of the residents walking, and you know some of them have said to me, ‘Oh, I’d never get up this early and do this on my own.’ But here they have something that keeps them accountable and active,” says Pazo.
Staying active is just as important when it comes to a longer and healthier lifespan — AKA one’s “healthspan.” Something as simple as taking a daily walk can significantly reduce seniors’ risk of bone density-related issues and chronic disease. Preventive measures like stretching and resistance training can also improve the quality of seniors’ lives. The Watermark, for example, has a full-length, rooftop pool for aquatic workouts. However, as Belmont’s Will emphasizes, exercise programs must take its participants’ age and limitations into account to be effective. For Will, this means including a healthy dose of physical rehab in the Belmont Village’s exercise programming.
“You’re not going to have an 85-year-old on the floor doing push-ups, but we do have really skillful rehab staff that carefully analyze physical limitations that can be worked on, things like mobility, gait, working on the musculature around your joints, and increasing your physical strength,” says Will. “It’s these things that will contribute to a better lifespan and keep them active.”
Nutrition also contributes to a longer healthspan. Even though there seems to be a different fad about the best diet every other day, most experts agree that a diet based on whole foods with lots of fruits and veggies, and with a limited amount of processed foods, is best. For some people, that means the Mediterranean diet. For others, keto. Regardless, the benefits that come out of these diet trends stem from limiting processed foods and focusing on nutrients.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it,’” says Dubitzky. “Well, it’s true.”
Another pillar of healthy aging involves cognitive engagement. As you age, neural plasticity and the number of neural pathways in your brain decreases significantly, and the only way to slow this process is to remain cognitively active. In fact, some studies show that you can continue to create new neural pathways regardless of age; multiple studies show that seniors who continually challenge their brains with reading, writing, and other stimulating activities have a much lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.
To safeguard against cognitive decline, most senior living communities have extensive programming centered around retaining cognitive function, which usually means classes and opportunities for learning.
The Watermark at Coral Gables has a program called Watermark University that allows its members to share their professional pasts and teach a class to other members. Given the professional history of its members, this gives way to some interesting classes.
“Classes are different at every Watermark community and reflect the unique interests of its members and associates. Some communities have seen members who are 80 fluent in French lead a French class to fellow members, chefs lead a sushi-making class, or even a maintenance associate lead a floral arranging class,” says Rene Sanz, executive director of the community.
The Palace, East Ridge, and the Belmont Village also offer a variety of classes that cater to their residents’ interests and promote lifelong learning. Attending classes and learning more not only keeps residents’ brains active and staves off degenerative brain disease, but it also opens the door to new hobbies.
“The period between 65 and 105 is a gift. You have the opportunity to take up new pastimes, find new interests, and try the things that you otherwise didn’t have time for when you were younger,” says Will, whose Belmont Village — due to open this fall — is almost like a small college campus, with different rooms devoted to art, music, classes, and film screenings. There is also a library with computers and a grand piano in the “Great Room.”
Although every senior living community is different and offers its own sort of unique amenities, there seems to be a consistent philosophy among all of them. The best way to maintain health in the later part of your life is to remain social, stay active, and keep learning. Or, as still-vibrant actor Dick Van Dyke, now 97, puts it, “You just have to keep moving.”