As Program Director, Heather’s job is to take the aim set forth by the College and find innovative and exciting ways to put it into practice. As a part of the Silver Sneakers Program, the college has recently introduced new fitness classes, including a splash class that will take advantage of the school’s pool. Heather says this is part of her effort to make the Saint Joseph’s chapter of Silver Sneakers unique, by offering opportunities to its members they can’t find at other local gyms. Heather says that in order to make this program special, she must look at the whole person—catering to all the different aspects of their lives that could be enriched by the environment at Saint Joe’s. This means integrating different types of activities into the program to attract people of different facets and interests, integrating learning, social enrichment, intergenerational work, and technology to provide new purpose for this community in the wake of them stepping out of the workforce and into retirement.
“People are people,” says Heather DiYenno as she discusses her work with older adults as Program Director of the Institute for Integrative Aging at Saint Joseph’s College. The Institute aims to combat social isolation, depression, and loneliness in the surrounding older adult population by providing them with the unique social, learning, and fitness opportunities that we have here on campus. Heather lights up when she talks about the connections she has made as Program Director; the passion she has for helping those around her is evident in her every word. The Institute’s main program is the Silver Sneakers fitness program, which makes use of the college’s onsite athletic complex to help older adults in the surrounding community stay active and physically fit, while also providing them with a social experience in a community of peers.
After retirement, a person’s number of daily interactions can steeply decrease, their social circle shrinks, and people—especially in our rural setting—can experience a deep sense of social isolation. The Institute for Integrative Aging gives older adults a program they can look to for social interactions, fitness classes, lifelong learning opportunities, and more. One aspect of our college campus that makes it especially unique for this type of program is the heart of the college itself, the students. Heather pointed out that people ages 18-22 are often some of the most isolated and susceptible to depression. This means that the program has the potential to help students as well as older adults, providing them with new intergenerational experiences including unexpected friendships, mentoring, learning about the aging process, and the ability to make connections that could broaden their view of the world and their own lives. Heather hopes that by getting the students involved, she can help break down generational barriers and fundamentally change the culture around aging.
Heather has already begun to get students on campus involved in direct ways. Currently, she is working in conjunction with a group of media students who are filming testimonials from Silver Sneakers members about how the program has impacted and enriched their lives. As a part of their coursework for Saint Joseph’s classes, fourth-year Community Health nursing students were required to design presentations on various topics related to aging, which they would then give to willing Silver Sneakers participants after fitness classes. Heather notes that the nurses went and actually participated in the classes with the members before their presentations, and that the change in them after only one class was remarkable. Walking into the classes the students were nervous and reserved, but after the class was finished they felt all a part of one group, forming connections with these older adults, and realizing that people are people, no matter what age. As a part of her goal for the program going forward, Heather says that she wants to incorporate more of these interactions and this type of learning into the required core for the college. The Institute for Integrative Aging not only aligns with the core values and mission of the college, but its subject matter is crucially important for the development of students into compassionate, forward-looking, well-rounded individuals.
Heather’s passion for people is astounding, and she values, more than anything else in her work, the connections she is able to make with the individuals who come to participate in the program. Heather started her career in the medical and clinical sides of healthcare, and after working for so long in that vein, it was a welcome and fulfilling change to take a step back, see the whole person, and come at the concerns of aging with a different lens. The advances of modern medicine have helped bring us into a new age, and people are living longer and better lives because of it. However, as the world gets increasingly medical-centric, life as we age can sometimes feel like a series of ailments that need to be treated and fixed. We forget that aging is a natural process, and that older adults should be treated with the same dignity and autonomy as their younger peers. Heather believes that helping these older adults find enrichment in their social, physical, and intellectual lives during a difficult time has been extremely rewarding. She explained that through her hard work, she hopes the Institute for Integrative Aging can become the community hub for Saint Joseph’s College, and that together as a college community, we can help to continue to change the lives of people around us for the better.