By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — Drawing acclaim for innovative programming for senior citizens, Bristol’s Living Well — a residential care facility dedicated to holistic care for elders — will be honored next week at an awards ceremony in Montpelier.
The care facility has snagged one of seven awards being given out this year by the Governor’s Commission on Healthy Aging to facilities and individual providers in Vermont, earning the title of “Program Champion.”
For anyone who has seen Living Well’s vivacious drumming circle in action, it’s an award well deserved.
The four-year-old facility, housed in a 105-year-old home on Maple Street, began its drumming program around a year and a half ago. Living Well administrator Dee Deluca attended a conference where she saw a film about a man who did drumming with vets in Veterans Administration hospitals — and when she returned, she mentioned the idea to the Living Well staff.
Activities Director Dechen Rheault, who heads up the band, said she wished she’d videotaped the project from the beginning, if only to document what she said has been a dramatic change in the residents.
“The most amazing thing for me is to see the transformation of the residents,” she said. She’s watched residents change from “very shy or more inward people” to enthusiastic, outgoing musicians, despite the fact that all except for perhaps one band member had never played an instrument before.
“Those transformations are so apparent, so apparent,” she said.
On any given day, between seven and 10 residents (the facility is home to 11 in all) show up for drumming practice, and Bristol neighbors, residents’ family members and members of the Living Well staff frequently join the drumming circle.
Now, the band is also singing out as they drum. In addition to performing two original songs that the band has written, Rheault said, the Living Well residents sing numbers like “Let it Be” and “Young at Heart” in parts.
It’s a way for Living Well’s elders to “step outside of the box and stretch their minds,” Rheault said, and the mental stimulation seems to be working. She said that, for some drummers, the drumming circle also seems to have a therapeutic effect. One band member came to Living Well on hospice, but has since recovered to the point of being taken off the hospice service.
Now, at least twice a month, the band takes its show on the road — to the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, to Shard Villa, and to local farmers’ markets. The band always brings along extra drums, Rheault said, and encourages audience members to join the group.
“They’re engaging with life,” said Paul Kervick, who serves as the head for community outreach and sustainability at Living Well, and like Rheault sits on the board of directors.
For the founding members of the Living Well community — Rheault and fellow board member and Community Outreach and Sustainability Director Paul Kervick included — the drumming program is indicative of not just innovative programming, but also of Living Well’s broader mission.
“We get to create models that our vision has been about,” said Rheault. “(We can prove) that aging doesn’t have to be about sitting in a wheelchair or lying in a bed.”
About half of the band is coping with significant challenges, she said, and many of the drummers use wheelchairs or walkers — but the drumming and singing program draws elders out and energizes the Living Well residents and community. In this way, it’s a program perfectly in step with Living Well’s philosophy.
Kervick and Rheault were among the founding members of the care facility who, four years ago, were inspired to create a residential home that took a holistic approach to aging — a model for caring for elders based on health, the whole person and community engagement.
“In our culture, often, when people age, there’s this perception that it’s kind of the end of life,” said Kervick. “If you get ill, what is available is usually a nursing home.”
That option, he said, is high cost and high tech. It’s a choice that’s right for some elders, Kervick said, but not everyone.
“While we need many diverse approaches … it didn’t appear to us like there was really a model for aging that was based on health, that was based on aging being a normal process,” he said. “Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you can’t participate in your passion, in your creativity, in your work.”
That, he said, is where Living Well came into play.
“We wanted to create a community-based, holistic approach to elder care,” he said.
In the four years since its inception, Kervick said Living Well has had “phenomenal” results, and they’re looking at ways to help share their approach to elders’ care with other small residential facilities in the state. It’s a model — complete with communal governance, a focus on a healthy, whole foods diet, and the integration of both eastern and western medicines — that’s attracting a lot of attention, Rheault said.
“Aging is a natural process,” Kervick said. “We’re here to tend to that aging and bring to it what can be most comfortable, most vital, most helpful for the individual.”
Rheault and Kervick both said that the Healthy Aging award is a nice acknowledgment of the work being done at Living Well — though Rheault joked that she hopes the band gains recognition on a larger stage.
“We’re all hoping for Oprah Winfrey,” she laughed. “Somebody suggested Carnegie Hall — but I said, why not Oprah?”
On the road to Oprah Winfrey’s set and Carnegie Hall is the Statehouse in Montpelier, where Living Well’s residents and staff will perform at the awards ceremony on Tuesday, Oct. 28. Gov. Jim Douglas is expected to join the band’s drumming circle during the performance. The Healthy Aging awards ceremony is schedule for 11 a.m., and is open to the public.