How Wellness Coaching is Advancing Health Equity in Colorado

CFAR | December 18, 2017 | by Geralyn Magan

Eaton Senior Communities has embraced wellness coaching as a “fundamental part of what we do,” says Chief Operating Officer Diana Delgado. The coaching model helped 2 team members at the Lakewood, CO, community earn the 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award for Health Equity.

Residents at Eaton Senior Communities in Lakewood, CO, are accustomed to seeing college students in the hallways and common areas of their affordable housing community near Denver.

The students come to Eaton to gain practical experience that they hope will advance their careers in the fields of health and wellness. In the process, they are changing the lives of low-income older adults living in Eaton’s independent and assisted living apartments.

Students from the Integrated Health Care program at nearby Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU) have long participated in semester-long internships at Eaton that helped them learn about food insecurity or senior living administration. But the community’s internship program expanded dramatically in 2014, when one MSU intern asked if she could use her Eaton semester to complete the hours required to become a credentialed wellness coach.

“I really didn’t understand wellness coaching, but we assigned (the intern) to a couple of residents,” says Sarah Schoeder, Eaton’s director of wellness. “When I saw how excited the residents were, and the successes they were seeing because they had a wellness coach, it was an ‘ah-ha’ moment. I knew we really had something special under our roof.”

Three years later, Eaton Senior Communities has embraced wellness coaching as a “fundamental part of what we do,” says Chief Operating Officer Diana Delgado.

What is Wellness Coaching?

Asked what wellness coaches do, Delgado, Schoeder and Eaton’s Service Coordinator Kate West begin by describing what coaches don’t do.

“The biggest misconception is that wellness coaches are giving advice,” says Delgado “That is not what they are doing. They are really working with the resident to identify their needs and their wants. Then they connect residents to the resources they need to reach their goals, and provide support that empowers residents to make changes in their lives.”

Most (98%) of Eaton residents have already identified their wellness goals by participating in the community’s health and wellness assessment program, a computer-based assessment tool that helps residents track their progress in achieving wellness. West initiates the assessment process when new residents move to Eaton. Schoeder and the wellness coaching interns follow up to help residents update their goals each year. During these updates, residents can sign up to work on a specific goal with a student wellness coach.

To date, about 40 residents and 25 interns have participated in the wellness coaching program. The average intern logs about 150 coaching hours during a typical semester, meeting individually for an hour each week with approximately 5 residents.

Spreading the Word

It will be another year before Eaton sees the first findings of a University of Denver study designed to analyze how the community’s wellness coaching program is affecting the overall health and well-being of residents. But, in the meantime, there is no shortage of stories about how the program is changing individual lives, including how wellness coaches:

  • Supported one resident’s effort to lose 100 pounds, while helping another resident to manage her chronic back pain so she could attend a granddaughter’s wedding.
  • Motivated a formerly homeless resident to reduce her dependence on a walker so she could teach a dance class.
  • Helped one resident control her debilitating anxiety by reconnecting with practices, including meditation and reiki, that she once enjoyed but had abandoned.

Delgado, Schoeder and West are gratified by these successes, but they’re not likely to be satisfied for long. Their long-term goal is to “see wellness coaching spread across the country,” says Delgado. And they’ve already taken steps to make sure that happens sooner rather than later.

A 2015 Innovations Grant from LeadingAge helped Eaton refine its approach to wellness coaching and develop tools to help other housing providers implement the program. The Eaton team has already helped 2 Denver-area housing communities launch wellness coaching internship programs with MSU. In addition, West and Schoeder regularly offer presentations at regional and national conferences to explain their approach, promote the toolkit, and offer technical assistance to anyone who wants to follow in their footsteps.

In recognition of those efforts, Schoeder and West were recently honored with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Award for Health Equity, presented by LeadingAge at this year’s Annual Meeting. The award recognizes successful efforts to reduce the health disparities that some older adults experience each day.

Reducing Health Disparities to Advance Health Equity

Eaton residents, who struggle to make ends meet, are all-too-familiar with the health inequities that RWJF is focused on eliminating.

Like other low-income elders, poverty has taken a toll on the health and well-being of many residents, especially those who moved to Eaton after experiencing a period of homelessness. West reports that most Eaton residents have 3 or more chronic health conditions that have gone untreated for many years due to lack of access to affordable medical care. More than half (60%) of Eaton’s residents require assistance with at least one activity of daily living.

“A lifetime of poverty has prevented many Eaton residents from learning about and implementing practices that could help them stay healthy,” says Delgado. “That is where wellness coaching comes in."

Benefits are Well Worth the Effort

West and Schoeder admit that they were initially concerned about taking on the responsibility of supervising student interns, in addition to their other duties. But those concerns were unwarranted.

“I was shocked at how easy it is,” says West about carrying out the team’s responsibilities, which include:

  • Recruiting, interviewing and selecting good interns;
  • Orienting students to the Eaton community, its policies and procedures;
  • Pairing interns with residents; and
  • Meeting weekly with interns to discuss their progress.

The benefits of the program have more than compensated for the added work, say West and Schoeder.

“It is awesome what the students bring to Eaton, from new resources to new perspectives on alternative medicine,” says West. “I can’t say enough about how wonderful it is to have that energy and those fresh ideas.” Says Schoeder, a nurse who has spent almost 4 decades in geriatric health care, “This is the most exciting time in my career.”

The wellness coaching program has also helped to expose scores of MSU students to the value of working with older adults, which is one of Delgado’s priorities.

“We want to attract talent to the field of aging services and this is a truly dynamic way to do that,” she says. “The wellness coaching program is a way for the younger generation to see how they can empower the older generation to focus on improving their health and wellness. It is an opportunity for older adults to continue giving back in their own communities by working in these types of intergenerational programs. It has been amazing to see the impact.”