Mares: Healthy Aging in Vermont

Jan 25, 2017

I’ve recently had a good reason to take an interest in programs designed to improve senior physical and mental well-being - and along the way, perhaps even reduce Medicare costs.

Following open heart surgery to replace a faulty valve, I joined a cardiac rehabilitation program at the UVM Medical Center. It was founded 30 years ago by cardiologist Dr. Phil Ades to speed patients' recovery with individualized medical evaluation, and physical activity. Weight loss, smoking cessation, cholesterol reduction, and stress management are also emphasized.

I passed the "entrance exam" or stress test in early December and entered the clinic on Tilley Dr. in South Burlington, both nervous and hopeful.

In the room was a thicket of 30 or more exercise machines, on which a number of people, middle-aged and older, with diverse body masses and shapes, walked, trotted, peddled, lifted, pushed and pulled toward their own physical goals. I recognized friends from singing, running and politics - while staff moved among them with words of encouragement. Dr. Ades likes to say that "Mean people don't come here, and mean people don't work here!"

On my own clipboard, I recorded increasing repetitions on treadmill, bike, weights and rowing machine. I could feel improvement almost daily, and I’ve set a goal to run on my son's Marathon relay team in May.

But it’s not about competition. Patients' follow their own versions of the Olympic motto: "Faster, Higher, Stronger." They chat across treadmill belts, rowing machines and banks of weights; a large TV screen shows tips about exercise and nutrition - and quotes like Mark Twain’s that "The secret of getting ahead is getting started."

Then just this week, it was announced that another innovative Vermont program has been chosen by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to be a model for 40 senior housing developments in seven states. The “Support and Services at Home” program at Cathedral Square in South Burlington combines social services and community health with a non-profit housing model that helps seniors maintain good health while aging safely at home.

Both programs empower individuals to take more responsibility for their health – a critical and effective beginning. "When you finish this program,” one fellow patient told me, “you won't be out of the woods yet, but through the trees, you'll see an open field!"