A February of Firsts: Embracing New Experiences and Challenges

Written by Bob Kleinfelder, Birches Assisted Living resident and senior editor emeritus of The Lions Club’s LION Magazine

Challenges! Most of us face them just about every day. Some are relatively easy to overcome such as shoveling snow or weeding the garden, perhaps. Others are more difficult, like helping a disabled person or searching for a new job after you’ve been laid off.

We, here at The Birches, face challenges daily— walking, attending to our personal needs, therapy. We accept and manage these challenges as best we can. But to maintain our strength, physically and mentally, we need to take on new challenges, adopt different ways of doing things, and build our self-confidence.

During February, we were challenged to do exactly that.The staff provided opportunities and encouragement with a calendar of choices to whet our interest for joining in activities we had, perhaps, never before attempted. These fell into four categories that successful aging research guaranteed would not only be good for our overall wellness but would stimulate our brains and promote brain health.

These four categories were: social, intellectual, physical and spiritual.

We called this initiative “Choose Your Challenge.” As a community, we wished to live better and together we were challenged to accept at least two new activities in each component. Ideally, these would enhance our determination to cast aside those outworn stereotypes of aging and embark on new and far-reaching paths toward personal satisfaction and accomplishment.

“But I’ve never tried that before” was no excuse for not giving it a shot now. For example, why not introduce ourselves to a new resident we have never spoken to before or sit at a new lunch or dinner table? We might even phone a friend we haven’t spoken to for quite awhile. How about singing a karaoke duet? OK, if that’s too far out for most of us, we could always indulge in our bi-monthly “Moving to Music” with Gail Ann. These tuneful hour-long swing-and-sways for residents are not only fun, they’re a great way to get in some must needed exercise.

During February, we answered a number of challenges to try something different. Some residents participated in Pass the Pigs dice game (yes, you read that right). It was a dice game with tiny pigs that forced your mind to figure out something different…. yep, and if that didn’t work you could always baste the pigs, shove them in the oven and roast them.

Others tried their hand at upside down Bingo (the cards were turned upside down to challenge the brain.) Similarly, in math Bingo your brain was tested by the caller saying B2 plus 4 instead of B6. Subtraction, multiplication and division were also called (long division? Give me a break).

A few of us baked and ate zucchini chips and took part in a fine social wine tasting event (ahhh, we senior folks know how to live). Then there was the sugar scrub, a new recipe we never tried before. Instead of giving sweets, we concocted an exfoliating “sugar scrub” and presented it as valentines gift to our staff as a thank you for their work so they could rub it on for a smoother skin. And we all, as a group, walked down a memory lane with guest Rochelle Pennington. And one afternoon were greeted by our animal friends at the Hinsdale Humane Society.

Our gala sock hop let us to show off our dancing prowess to tunes popular during the ‘50s (for most of us, our best decade). If some of us never tasted sushi, we had our chance at a Japanese restaurant. We also celebrated Chinese New Year (the Year of the Dog) with an interesting video on China and a lunch menu of Chinese entrees in our dining room. Then there was the highlight of the month, our variety show featuring residents and staff performing skits and musical numbers. Ed Sullivan would have been envious.

Our “intellectual” activities included learning to line dance, playing a new card game with a friend, reading a new book, taking a class online or learning a new hobby. We were encouraged to, perhaps, brush our teeth with the opposite hand. Gratefully, the men weren’t asked to take their razors in their other hand and shave, in which case a fleet of ambulances would have been needed. Or we could learn 10 words in a new language. (I know a few in German, Hungarian and Yiddish, but they really wouldn’t be appropriate for a family publication such as this.)

Some residents also learned to arm knit with our Executive Director Jackie and were taught the intricacies of Sudoku. We were urged to produce a Life Bio that captured our life’s journey in our own words. Participants were given a journal with several questions for them to elaborate upon, thus authoring a book for future generations to enjoy. Others chose to start learning the art of origami. In recognition of Black History Month, we enjoyed an excellent presentation, “African Americans & the Roots of American Music.” Many of us viewed “Use Your Brain, Change Your Age” and “Medical Cannabis” presentations. And in the true spirit of Valentine’s Day-Chicago style, we were welcome to watch a DVD on the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

Now on to the physical stuff. There are stations in The Birches’ corridors where we can test various physical abilities, and we were encouraged to do so. Of course, we were challenged to walk more and to use the stairs, not the elevators, if we were safely able. How about taking on a new healthy habit, like drinking an extra glass of water each day? Trying out one of our new fitness movement classes was given top priority too.

For example, we were invited to give chair tai chi a go. Led by activities director Katie Klitchman, it is a mild variant of an ancient Chinese martial arts program that promotes balance, flexibility, range of motion, strength, energy, pain relief, tranquility, stress reduction, and peace of mind. These sessions are now held once a week. In the vein of exercise, we could “move with Mary” with Mary Healy Jonas, s volunteer personal trainer who wishes to “give back” because her children also volunteered here a number of years ago. Her sessions really loosened us up.

We could then follow these strenuous exercises with a relaxing massage from Sabrina. Pocket billiards was also on the list of things to do, giving “physical activity” its most liberal meaning. On Valentine’s Day we could enjoy a morning stretch with love songs and then, presumably, take in the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” on DVD. All of which builds a well-rounded personality.

Our fourth component, spiritual, brought the most personal of the challenges. It encouraged each of us to probe deeply into our own feelings and our commitment to the peace and well-being of our fellow human beings.

We were asked to, perhaps, give of our time to help a neighbor, write a thank you letter to a friend for a gift received or for just being with us in a time of personal need, volunteer at an organization you feel passionate about, or just take a long walk outside for a bit of personal reflection.

Here at The Birches, there is church transportation every Sunday morning and Rosary and Communion every Monday morning. Mass is offered the first Friday of every month and non-denominational services are provided every month by pastors of our residents. Twice a month, we are also invited to participate in morning meditation and yoga.

For residents who wish to become more familiar with the Bible, there is an hour of Bible study once a month. One special session that is offered at least once a month is on resilience when, as a group, we discuss how we may best confront personal grief and situations that tend to temporarily destabilize our lives. So you see, there are many paths we may take to gain the inner strength or spirituality, if you will, to overcome the challenges we face and then move on.

There you have It, our answers to the February’s “Choose Your Challenge.” So what’s in store for March? Stay tuned!

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