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Woonsocket nurse showing nation her senior wellness program

October 2, 2013

WOONSOCKET – Weighing well over 250 pounds, Ella came to the Woonsocket Senior Center to attend a Senior Services Inc. weight loss class in hopes of shedding a few pounds before surgery to repair her knees.

She enrolled in a chair exercise class offered as part of the Senior Wellness program at the center, and within a few short weeks lost more than 50 pounds and enough weight to go ahead with her surgery.

It’s one of the many stories Linda Thibault, a registered nurse and director of the Senior Wellness Center, likes to share when she talks about the success of the Senior Wellness Program, a health promotion and disease prevention program that for the past three years has given older adults in the community the tools they need to stay active and healthy.

It’s a story Thibault will likely be sharing this week at the annual National Council on Aging conference in Sturbridge, Mass., where Thibault and other senior center professionals from around the country have gathered to share innovative strategies to help older adults remain healthy and economically secure in their own homes and communities.

Thibault was selected to present a workshop at the three-day conference – which started Tuesday and ends Friday - on the Woonsocket Senior Center’s transformation into a Wellness Center which, today, offers exercise classes five times a week, blood pressure clinics and nurse consultations, podiatry appointments, vision and hearing screenings, and weight loss classes, among other things.

Thibeault, a registered nurse for more than 40 years, was hired by Senior Services Inc. with grant money in 2009 to develop a health promotion and disease prevention program. What Thibault has been able to do in just three short years has earned Woonsocket’s Wellness Center a reputation as being one of the most successful in New England. The Woonsocket program even caught the attention of the National Council on Aging and the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging, which selected Thibault as a presenter at this week’s conference.

One of the focuses of this year’s conference is transforming senior centers into wellness centers, and because Woonsocket has essentially accomplished that over the past three years, Thibault submitted a proposal and was ultimately chosen to present at the conference.

Thibault, a past president of the National Association of Orthopedic Nurses, has traveled extensively as a national and international speaker on healthcare topics. She considers an invitation by the Japanese Orthopedic Surgeons to speak at their annual conference in Tokshima, Japan, a highlight of her career.

“We’re very excited that Linda will be sharing the success of our Wellness Program,” said Senior Services Inc. Executive Director Barbara Waterman.

At its core, the Wellness Program is all about providing reliable health information and strategies that enable seniors to take control and make healthy lifestyle choices.

In its first year in 2009, the Senior Wellness Program reached over 800 citizens through more than 85 health education and screening events where Thibault taught chronic disease management and provided information about stroke awareness, hypertension, fall prevention and the benefits of exercise.

“Seniors are more at risk for chronic diseases, and what we try to do is focus on disease prevention and how to manage those diseases,” says Thibault. “The Wellness program has really taken off. We have five exercise classes now with 30 to 60 participants in each class. We knew that exercise makes a huge difference in prevention and control of chronic diseases so that’s a big part of what we do.”

The Weight Loss for Wellness Program a couple of years ago, for example, had 58 seniors participating in an eight-week class. By the end of the class, the average weigh loss for the participants was 10 to 15 pounds. Two years later, all but one participant had sustained weight loss within one to two pounds.

Thibault has also worked with the Senior Centers Food Service Manager Paul Leduc to reduce sodium in the meals served at the center. Today, meals typically have under 800 milligrams of sodium and are 700 calories or less.

Thibault says her goals in the coming years are to expand the Wellness Program by exploring regionalization, more outreach into the community and developing new programs, including a diabetic support group and a bereavement group.

“This has been one of the most rewarding and happiest times in my nursing career,” says Thibault, who was an orthopedic nurse at Fogarty Memorial Hospital for 18 years and director of rehabilitation for the Visiting Nurse Service of Greater Rhode Island for 10 years.

“In the old days we were taught to just take care of sick people in the hospital, but this shift to wellness is all about health promotion and disease prevention and the seniors really get it,” she says.

“Today, more than ever, seniors are taking control of their health. They are identifying risk factors that can be controlled and making healthy lifestyle choices.”

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