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'You gotta keep laughing': Emmanuel Nursing Home residents rediscover the joy

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There can oftentimes be a dreary stigma attached to nursing homes.

"Our society as a whole thinks that nursing homes are just a place where people go to die," said Emmanuel Community Chaplain and Spiritual Care Coordinator Vicki Marthaler. "They can't take care of themselves; their family can't take care of them."

But Marthaler says what people don't realize is that more and more elderly in nursing homes like Emmanuel are embracing life in a way they didn't always do.

"When I started working here I quickly realized that there was a lot of living going on here," said Marthaler, "and I laughed more than I ever did (before)."

Many residents at Emmanuel now strive to find and keep the joy in life through balance -- body, mind and soul.

They're encouraged to realize that the fun in life isn't over just yet.

Employees at Emmanuel try to help them with this, as they know that simply entering a nursing home can quickly zap one's zest for life.

"We have residents here who are very compromised in their body and they need help to move about, and that's a great loss," said Marhaler, "And so people coming here oftentimes are grieving. Maybe someone hasn't died, but their independence has died or has been severely compromised."

Rallying around a new person is the first step in helping a resident regain their self worth, according to Marthaler, and this is the first step in what is called "Spiritual Care."

Although this may include religion, it isn't the main idea.

"It means that you are creating safety and comfort -- that a person feels content and at peace," said Marthaler, "How can we help them once again discover their value, their worth to bring peace to their mind and heart as they're living the days that are before them."

This means workers don't just have the duty of caring for residents, but caring about them -- whether it be helping them put on makeup when they're feeling insecure or getting to know their interests and making them important.

"It's easy to sit back and feel sorry for yourself," said Lorraine Tallman, an Emmanuel resident who just turned 90, "but exercising wakes you up. There's a lot of laughs."

Tallman is referring to the growing number of group exercise classes at Emmanuel.

Where there were once only classes twice a week, there is now a strong showing for classes twice a day.

"We incorporate all the movements of all the joints; we'll add weights and sometimes play games with a big air balloon or parachute," said Emmanuel Nurse Chrisy Wierima, who says they actively seek out those residents who try to sit in their rooms all day long.

Keeping the residents physically active is a priority because building up their strength and mobility also builds up their independence and keeps them feeling good about themselves.

"I don't want to give up being able to do every little thing," said 100-year-old Ethel Hallock, as she lifted small weights in the Muscle Works class, "Some days I just don't want to do something like this, but I just push on through. I think I need it."

Emmanuel Clinical Director Cheryl Krause says when they first started the amped up group exercises last summer, they had four to five residents who would fall several times a month during the course of their daily activities, but within a few weeks of exercising, their falls had greatly reduced.

"Their balance and strength have improved greatly and their energy level is increased," said Krause, "only two of our residents who attend group exercise regularly have fallen in the last 30 days -- neither of them had any injuries."

"Goldie" Hagen has MS, and says although she's not excited to exercise, she's glad the Emmanuel workers push her to do it.

"I don't like it, but I do it," she smiles, "and afterwards, it does make me feel really good though, it surely does."

And although 82-year-old Nettie Momb suffers from Parkinson's, she says she is a firm believer in managing the disease through exercise.

"I even surprised myself this morning during class because I started criss-crossing my arms, and I haven't been able to do that in such a long time," Momb said, happily.

Healing through food

Another fairly recent change to the nursing home at Emmanuel is the way they cook.

"We use natural, whole foods for healing," said Wendy Gordon, Emmanuel's registered dietician, "we'll take flax seed, raw and unsalted pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and what we do that is we grind that into powder and literally add it to the residents' foods."

They also serve up what Gordon calls "Energy Balls, which are made up of ground nuts, flax seed, honey, olive oil and peanut butter.

"The nutrient density of it is massive," said Gordon, who says about 70 to 80 percent of the residents choose these natural food supplements first before resorting to medication for certain medical issues.

Emmanuel staff is now dedicating their fundraising efforts to enhancing the health and wellness program they say is helping their residents "find the joy."

In fact, their yearly Charity Benefit on Jan. 27 was put on solely to raise money for the Healthy Life & Spirit program, raising roughly $43,000, part of which will be used to purchase more NuStep bicycles that they say residents "practically fight over."

"It's good for the body and good for the mind," said 90-year-old Phillip Johnson, who says he exercises to keep both fit and happy.

"You gotta keep talking, and walking," he says, as he talked of how socializing and keeping active helps keep him young, "I can walk, and I can dance -- this is my Cadillac," he said pointing to his electric wheel chair, "but I don't always need it. It's just fun," he said, "You gotta keep laughing, that's all there is to it."