Wellness Dimensions —  more than just exercise

Wellness is one of those white hot buzzwords that everyone uses, knowing it’s good in theory, but for which there’s a wide gap in common understanding and practices, even among experts. We decided to look more closely at wellness and the six wellness dimensions from the viewpoint of seniors considering housing options and their caregiving family members.

Everyone gets the idea that wellness is about staying as healthy as possible for as long as possible. We often envision wellness as manifested in physical strength and flexibility. The historic prescription for improvement is that good diet and exercise yields improved physical health and wellness.

Increasingly the experts are seeing connections between physical health and other aspects of our life. It makes sense that mind and body interact. Distress in one system tends to adversely spillover to the other. Recognizing this linkage, experts see wellness as more than just physical health and conditioning. Whole-person wellness has at least six wellness dimensions, only one of which is physical:

1. Social. Humans are inherently social. Our need for social interaction varies by personality, but very few of us are at our best in total social isolation. Social well-being and engagement positively influence other areas of our life. We mentioned diet as an important input into physical health and wellness. It turns out that dining is also something that is inherently social. We like to eat with others. We like to eat in spaces where other people are happy and active. Dan always says what he enjoys most about restaurants is being amongst people out having a good time, laughing and smiling. They don’t even have to be at your table. We get some vicarious energy from the mood of the room. Live music has similar effects. Lori loves listening to music, but live music has another layer of connection because it’s a shared, social experience.

The best senior living communities actively plot to get people out of their individual rooms and actively engaged in social activities and shared experiences. Shared dining or eating venues are a critical, daily part of this social engagement. And surprise! We like variety in both our venue and menu. So one marker of a CCRC’s priority on social wellness is offering a variety of dining options, including both food choices and settings.

Loneliness is the opposite of social engagement and is one of the most dreaded consequences of aging. Fighting loneliness is the goal of social wellness. We can’t always keep our relationships from the past intact. We can build new friendships and social circles.

Other social connections include daily routines like shopping together, exercise and entertainment. Almost everything has more meaning when shared. Some of us may need some alone time in between, but if you’re not poking your head outside into the social community, you’re probably paying the price in other wellness dimensions.




2. Emotional. How we feel emotionally has a strong impact on how we feel physically. If we’re lonely and unhappy the physical complaints feel more prominent and noticeable. Being socially active helps our emotional health. Socially engaged people have less time to dwell on loss or resentments. So there’s interaction or a feedback loop between social and emotional well-being.

One of the harder lessons of life is that we have a choice about how we deal with adversity. Happiness is a choice. Fortunately, it’s a choice that we can learn or be trained to consciously make. Support and encouragement for the emotional maturity to choose happiness, despite circumstances beyond our control, is a feature of successful wellness programming.

The world is out to get you. None of us get out alive. But what happens in the meantime isn’t all gloom and doom. It’s up to you to pick how you meet the world. Funny thing is, if you surround yourself with positive, happy peers, it’s easier to choose happiness for yourself. There’s that interaction again. Social well-being and emotional well-being go hand-in-hand.

3. Intellectual. The mind does not like to be bored or stagnant. The brain behaves a lot like a muscle. Use it or lose it. We look for lifelong learning programs as a marker of a successful wellness program. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and its affiliated colleges and universities are a leading example. 

The best CCRCs with successful wellness programs encourage active minds and learning new things, thinking new thoughts, and discovering new insights.

Wellness Dimensions Infographic

Wellness Dimensions Infographic

4. Spiritual. We are faith-inspired and active in our faith community. But spiritual health isn’t just for the churched. Lori says spirituality is the recognition that there is something bigger than yourself that gives structure and meaning to the cycle of life. Dan likes to say spirituality is the source of perspective in life. Perhaps as teenagers, we are all a bit narcissistic. Somewhere on the journey to maturity we normally discover the world isn’t centered on me or even you. (Sorry to break the news.) The world goes on spinning regardless. Faith with its ordered sacraments and informed reflection is a comfort to many. Others resist organized religion’s propensity to reflect the weaknesses of its human adherents. That doesn’t mean spirituality isn’t valuable or available to all.

In fact, a great source of spirituality is a connection with nature. Almost everyone has an awestruck moment of experiencing the beauty of nature writ large or small. We see the immense beauty of the Grand Canyon or the soaring sequoias, or the roaring might of Niagara Falls. We see the fine design in a flower or a bald eagle sailing the thermals. It’s inspirational — literally filled with the spirit.

Connecting with life beyond our own through kids and grandkids is fabulous, whether our own or others. It might be serving others in volunteer activities. Connecting with life can also be through the unconditional loyalty of pets or the care and forethought in gardening. All have a soul-satisfying, spiritual aspect that takes us beyond the constraints of our own needs and narrow experience.

Meditating upon the meaning of it all and connecting with life beyond our own serves a deep human need. It may be in the context of a faith or it may be as simple as enjoying the view of green grass and trees blowing in the breeze. But a person is missing a dimension if the spiritual hunger isn’t regularly fed. Rituals reinforce the spiritual.

5. Vocational or Occupational. Work is good for us. Idle hands have a bad reputation for a reason. Service to others is inherently satisfying. In our work life we’re all servants to each other, specialized in some area of expertise. In retirement, we can still work and serve. That doesn’t necessarily mean work for pay, but it can. Plenty of our peers continue some form of employment or consulting after formal retirement, whether for financial necessity or social preference. Good news is that it has more than just financial benefits. Work or service contributes to whole-person wellness.

Service in retirement is often expressed through volunteering or avocations. Dan’s Dad in retirement dedicated a large share of his time to volunteering to help children both within his community and in distant lands through various service organizations and charities. He did everything from Rotary International shoeboxes to the local Scout troop. He  volunteered his time and vintage Luscombe Silvaire for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA’s) Young Eagles’ ground schools and aviation events.  Lori’s parents are also lifetime volunteers, both in their church and community. Their transition into a CCRC has morphed the shape of their volunteer activities but they are both still actively involved. Always wanting to be the server rather than the served. The body doesn’t allow us to keep that up forever, but the longer we can go serving others, the better off we are.

There’s also value in learning new vocations or avocations. Retirement can give us the time to focus on things we’ve always wanted to do but for which we never had the time. Vocations or avocations should be as much a part of retirement as pre-retirement. Ideally, retirement is a chance to shift focus from what we have to do to what we want to do.




6. Physical. Physical health, conditioning, and flexibility are the traditional foundations of the wellness dimensions. Success requires attention to both exercise and diet. Sadly our metabolism changes. We can’t eat like when we were teenagers. And the joints and muscles complain more. If you reminded your kids to go outside and get some exercise, you can now repeat the mantra to yourself.

Yes, aging poses challenges like arthritis. Our strength and flexibility “don’t get any better sitting still,” or at least that’s what Dan’s Dad always instructed despite his osteoarthritis. Granddad preached the corollary, “Getting old isn’t for wimps,” with his rheumatoid arthritis swollen joints, but he kept at it. We suddenly have more sympathy for our folks as we accumulate our own litany of aches and pains, injuries and surgeries. The feet take some time to limber up. Sciatica can flare up without stretching (and sometimes with). Moving burns excess calories and helps the muscles and joints.

We specifically look for CCRCs that include great exercise facilities, including hydrotherapy with professional staff to help with wellness and rehabilitation. A great pool or hydrotherapy spa is great exercise when ground pounding, high-impact exercise is no longer a viable option. The water’s natural buoyancy is kind on joints.

Some measure of physical wellness is still important to enable the other wellness dimensions, but you’ll find that seeking out emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social and vocational enhancements will also extend physical wellness. We’re complex. We want and need them all.

Conclusion. A successful wellness program requires attention to and success in all six wellness dimensions or the program is not serving the person as a whole. Whole-person wellness is the goal of a CCRC’s wellness programming.