Health promotion and wellness students from a SUNY Oswego class gave St. Francis Commons residents a zest for life last fall with a Zestful Living exercise and nutrition program that continues this spring. 

St. Francis Commons at St. Luke, an assisted living residence at 12 Burkle St. in Oswego, opened in 2013 for older adults who wish to be independent and active, but may need help with daily activities. The residents range in age from 70 to 100.

Dr. Minjung Seo, a health promotion and wellness faculty member, found it important for her students in "Health Promotion Program Planning" to interact with St. Francis residents instead of just working among themselves. Zestful Living provides a hands-on experience that encourages the students to see if the wellness program they developed is effective with "real people" as their target audience, Seo said.  

From painting with watercolors to lifting weights to learning about balanced meals, the six-week, 12-session Zestful Living program focuses on five categories: nutrition, depression prevention, loneliness prevention, arthritis prevention and physical activity.

The 25 students took Seo's class last spring, interviewing the facility's residents to determine their needs. Teams of five students each took responsibility for teaching a topic of their choice. Patricia Loiacono and Kayla Balfe, both senior wellness management majors, taught the residents about nutrition and worked with them on flexibility and stretching.

Healthy, nourished

Some residents would tell the students they don't care about nutrition, Loiacono said. "We want them to know it's important no matter your age. Our bodies are built to age; if you provide it with the right care, you will build years to your life. Nutrition education could be crucial to keeping the residents healthy and nourished," she said.

Helen Yonkers was one of about a dozen residents who participated in the program and learned that she didn't have to eat everything offered in the dining center. Yonkers said she learned to eat more fruits, to eat a balanced meal and to eat the vegetables even if she doesn’t like them.

The students created a Bingo game that had food names on the squares instead of numbers to test the residents' knowledge, Yonkers said. "This gave me insight into food and movement. I always won," she laughed. 

The students also cooked granolas, painted pumpkins to incorporate mental wellness and danced. "We needed to make the program exciting," Seo said. "I felt that we could focus on multiple topics."

The experience helps put students' feet in the door for internships and lets them see what a wellness career might be like, Balfe said. The residents "give good feedback and are willing to help," she said. The students learned how to communicate with others about their health and ways to achieve wellness, she said, which is different from speaking with other students who may have similar age, physical activity and health backgrounds.

"Interaction was the most important part," Seo said. "Communication skills and attitude are really important."

'A connection'

Working with older adults has been Loiacano's goal since her first job as a food server in a retirement home at 17. "I feel like I have a connection with them," Loiacono said.

Yonkers felt similarly. "I like the interaction with the young people," she said. "They made me feel like there was some other life."

Dr. Sandra Bargainnier, SUNY Oswego health promotion and wellness department chair, said the residents were so happy, and their ability to mix with people that are different from them is good for anybody.

When students work with these people, their level of performance goes up, Bargainnier said. "I love anything that's multigenerational. It's not as easy as reading a textbook. It's messy, there are failures," she said.

Bargainnier said she's proud of Seo for giving students real-world experience and putting theory into practice.

"To expand the program is my goal," Seo said. She plans to do the same program in St. Francis Commons this semester and hopefully to expand it to the St. Luke's Bishops Commons this fall.

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