“Social connection can affect our physical, emotional, and mental health” With Callie Whitwell

Social connection is a critical part of our lives, it can affect our physical, emotional, and mental health. While social distancing measures were put in place for our safety, we are still inherently social creatures and without regular social connection, we — seniors especially — tend to struggle. As a part of my series about […]

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Social connection is a critical part of our lives, it can affect our physical, emotional, and mental health. While social distancing measures were put in place for our safety, we are still inherently social creatures and without regular social connection, we — seniors especially — tend to struggle.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Callie Whitwell.

Callie Whitwell is the Chief Operating Officer and Founding Partner of Lifetime Wellness. Driven by her passion for people and love for wellness, Callie is dedicated to creating innovative programs, products, and resources that help improve quality of life.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I began my healthcare career in 1996 working in the field of Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation before directing a Hospital-Based Community Wellness Center. In 2005, my passion for people and love for wellness led me to become a founding partner of Lifetime Wellness, an organization dedicated to providing quality comprehensive wellness programs for Independent Living, Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing and Rehab, and Memory Care Facilities. We strive to bring the very best in wellness, life enrichment, senior activities, and recreational programming to our partners and their communities

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

When COVID first hit our senior care facilities and we had to go into lock down, we were looking for a way to connect the residents to their families. We wanted something that everyone could use no matter where they were or what technology they had, and that was user-friendly. And that’s when the best thing ever happened… we were given the opportunity to try the AVA robot!

AVA became a real asset to enable families and residents to connect in an effective way, and even made telehealth visits possible. AVA is partnered with Cisco WebEx to provide a platform that everyone can use. Part of what makes it unique is that users don’t have to all be in the same place. Unlike with FaceTime or Skype, each person is provided a link that they can click on from wherever they are, whether it’s across the house, state, or across the country.

Our biggest takeaway has been the discernable importance of a Virtual Technology Strategy, which has become key for continued wellness support while social distancing. It has been so rewarding seeing the residents light up with joy when their family members appear on the AVA screen! We’ve had families that are out of state and have not been able to see their loved ones in a long time, be able to connect via the robot! Though we thought the technology may initially appear intimidating to the residents, they were very open to learning what all technology can really do!

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In the initial stages of implementing of Ava, we were so excited to get started that we did not ensure the mapping was as detailed as we do today. Mapping Ava on the front end so that it can maneuver spaces and get to all resident’s rooms successfully is very important as it helps to ensure a smooth implementation and fewer adjustments. Our team learned that taking the time on the front end will lead to fewer challenges down the road.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am particularly grateful to Karly Zelaska, one of our fantastic Wellness Directors. Karly immediately embraced using the AVA technology when it was introduced. She became the expert in the facility and made sure families and residents had exactly what they needed so that this could be a meaningful time.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

Social connection is a critical part of our lives, it can affect our physical, emotional, and mental health. While social distancing measures were put in place for our safety, we are still inherently social creatures and without regular social connection, we — seniors especially — tend to struggle.

Regular social interaction has been shown to lower anxiety and depression, help regulate emotions, improve mood and self-esteem, and actually improve our immune systems. All of these benefits are significant, especially at a time like this. The AVA robot allows us to keep that connection to the “outside world” for our seniors, so their mental and social wellbeing don’t fall to the wayside.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

  1. Social connection with families. With my family we are spread out over 4 different states. One of the things we do to stay connected are “Family Zooms” This past weekend we did a “surprise” zoom for my brother who turned 40. We had crazy hats and noise makers and told funny stories. I even recorded it so he would have it always!
  2. Connection/more access to health providers via telemedicine calls. I love that telemedicine is an option. When appropriate it is a great alternative to the time and even potential exposure you may could get by being at the doctor’s office. My daughter is doing a virtual visit with the GI doctor next week and I am grateful for this option . I think telemedicine is here to stay and opens up the healthcare world in a unique way.
  3. Slowing down and paying attention to oneself. This one is not always easy. As a mom I often have this last on the list, but I believe in order to be the best mom, employer and friend I have to keep this a top priority.
  4. Find a way to exercise for at least 5 minutes every day. Just do it! Exercise can impact so much of how we are feeling mentally and physically. Walking is something we all can do and even 5 minutes can release stress and improve your mood.
  5. Prioritize your personal spiritual growth. Perhaps the most important of all priorities. I try to read a devotional/bible every day and spend time praying. I am a part of a Life Group at my church and it is a wonderful place to grow closer to God and to have a community of people to do life with.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

“Take Care to Give Care” You can’t give from an empty cup. Wellness that starts with the caregiver will ultimately lead to better support and wellness for residents and patients. Everyone benefits from a caregiver wellness initiative.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

My top 5 things I wish someone told me before I started in this industry are:

  1. You never know what to expect until you try it. Sometimes the simplest of the simplest of engagements or activities turn out to be the most rewarding, especially when the residents feel a sense of accomplishment! Sometimes the activities we think they won’t enjoy, they love. And vice versa. It’s really important to regularly introduce new activities and wellness initiatives.
  2. Stress is part of the job: but it is very rewarding knowing we make a huge difference in these resident’s lives. It’s even better when the resident and/or their families show their gratitude. We have received countless cards, texts, and small gifts thanking us for all the hard work and compassion we show their loved ones.
  3. Wellness is a lot more than just “games.” Some families — and even staff — think of activities or wellness programs as games to play to keep busy, but in reality, there is SO much more to it! We are providing an opportunity for social connection and community interaction, supporting their physical, mental, and psychosocial wellbeing, feeding their creativity, and encouraging independence. And sometimes, it’s not about activities at all. Sometimes the residents just need a friend and their personal needs met — right now they want to see their families. So, if this means less activities and more family connection visits, that is what we will do. We often become the shoulder they cry on and the hand they hold.
  4. Embrace technology. Technology is a critical component in the wellness community: whether it be for connecting residents to their families, facilitating virtual physician and psychiatrist visits, planning and engaging in virtual 1:1 activities and virtual volunteer opportunities. Don’t be afraid to implement a virtual technology strategy in your wellness program, it really does make all the difference, especially when you have to make the large pivots our senior living communities are making right now.
  5. Be prepared to meet, and go above, expectations. Residents and their families can really expect a lot from us, especially now with the lock down. Family members are concerned about their loved one’s well-being, and they regularly reach out to us to find out if a resident needs new clothes, snacks, nails filed, etc. We are often that contact and support person, and the residents and families really rely on us to make sure they are well taken care of in every aspect, and that expectation has only been amplified with COVID-19.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Mental health is the closest to our hearts, and mental well-being and the environment in which a patient or resident spends most of their time are very interconnected. We talk a lot about the 6 dimensions of wellness; physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, vocational, and social. It’s like the spokes of a wheel, when one or more spokes is missing or falls short, it can throw off our balance. We need all six dimensions to keep our lives healthy and forward moving. We are huge advocates of Aromatherapy for this very reason. It has wealth of benefits, and improving mental health is a big one. Our aromatherapy programs have had a huge impact on residents’ mental well-being, from helping in reducing medications for pain, anxiety, and depression, to improving sleep and lowering fall rates. We are very passionate about improving mental health and quality of life for all of our residents!

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Your readers can follow us on Facebook: Lifetime Wellness, Ltd., LinkedIn: Lifetime Wellness, Ltd., and Twitter: @LifetimeWellnessLTD.

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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