Carol Cummings, RN, BSN, Expert on Aging Well

Contact Carol
25 September 2018

Many Brookdale nurses carry the title, Health and Wellness Director. The “and” in the title is interesting because it implies that “health” and “wellness” have different meanings and therefore carry different responsibilities. In my years of working with the aging population in senior living, I can confirm that “health” and “wellness” carry different responsibilities and each is vital to the overall well-being of residents.

The difference between “health” and “wellness”

When someone asks about your health, you generally think in terms of illness or the lack thereof. Saying “I’m in good health” means you don’t have cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or any other diagnosable health issue. The health care system was specifically designed to treat these types of conditions.  

But wellness is different. According to most definitions, wellness is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

While health and wellness are distinct by definition, they are inextricably related to each other. You can’t have health without wellness. For example,  people who are socially isolated are 50 percent, more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social connections. Similarly, studies from Rush University in Chicago have shown that those with a higher sense of purpose have a lower risk of dementia. Their study shows that “in follow-ups with the study participants, the researchers found people who had a greater purpose in life had a substantially reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, as well as a reduced risk of the precursor to Alzheimer's, mild cognitive impairment.”

What a clinician needs to do differently to support both health and wellness

I believe that the person tasked with caring for the health of an older adult should be looking for ways to also improve wellness. For example, socialization should be considered as a vital sign, just like blood pressure or heart rate.

When an abnormal vital sign is assessed, health care professionals apply a solution that can be “administered”, most often with medication. For example, someone with an abnormal heart rate will be prescribed medication. However, this is where health and wellness diverge. I cannot administer social connections; that is up to the person being treated to pursue themselves.

Health care professionals who have been taught to administer solutions may have to employ a different set of skills to help support those they are caring for in their wellness journey.

Brookdale’s Optimum Life wellness model encompasses six dimensions: purposeful, emotional, physical, social, spiritual and intellectual. We are educating our health care professionals to see the six dimensions of wellness as important vital signs and teaching them a wellness approach using three simple phrases to guide their interaction: Know Me, Ask Me and Empower Me.

  • Know Me - Get to know each resident using the six dimensions as a guide so you can help the residents achieve their highest level of well-being.
  • Ask Me - Asking questions rather than making statements so you can help the residents become aware of and make choices toward a higher level of wellness.
  • Empower Me - Do things with residents, not for residents, so that they can make choices and maintain independence and self-efficacy, which makes for better health outcomes.

I am so proud of our Brookdale clinicians who fiercely pursue the well-being of our residents. While one can’t have health without wellness, one can be well even in the midst of illness, especially if one is supported in pursuing things they enjoy and value in life. I believe this has a powerful impact on not only health outcomes, but on our residents’ quality of life!

Be Well on Purpose!

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