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John Chester, left, the building contractor for the new wellness center at Bethesda Pleasant View, speaks about the program during the ground-breaking ceremony Friday. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Bethesda breaks ground for innovative $6M senior wellness center

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WILLMAR -- Bethesda Health and Housing officially broke ground Friday for an innovative new senior wellness center at its Pleasant View home.

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The $6 million project, the first of its kind in the region, includes a warm-water indoor swimming pool and new space for physical, cardiac and occupational therapy programs. It'll also provide new space for Bethesda Home Health, the adult day services program and short-term nursing home stays.

When Doug Dewane, chief executive of Bethesda Health and Housing, introduced the project recently to tenants at Bethesda's Sunrise Village, "they were very excited," he said. "They were looking forward to possibly using these facilities themselves."

He calls the project "a prototype of the future."

Designed specifically for older adults, the wellness center will be open to the community as well as to Bethesda residents.

"It's a sign of what's to come," said Michelle Haefner, chief operating officer for Bethesda Health and Housing.

Construction will take place in three phases over three years, starting this fall with a two-level addition housing the adult day services program, the home care office and therapy space. This phase will be completed late in the summer of 2010.

It will be followed next year by construction of the pool area. In the final phase, resident rooms and dining areas will be expanded for the short-term rehabilitation program at Pleasant View.

It's a project that has been six years in the making, Dewane said.

"I never thought this was ever going to happen," he said. "It involved working with staff and working with our boards of directors and getting everyone on the same page, and finally reaching the conclusion this was the right thing to do for Bethesda."

Gone are the old institutional models of how people age and how they're cared for. The new focus of state and federal policymakers is on keeping seniors vital, independent and living in the community for as long as possible.

"There's a tsunami of baby boomers who are going to be retiring and entering into the system who are accustomed to going to the health club and working out. We want to be positioned to meet those needs," Dewane said.

"They want to be healthy. They want to take part in their health care," Haefner agreed. "That doesn't stop when you're 80. It's what we would want for ourselves and our own family."

Bethesda board members and staff made several field trips to see how other nursing homes and senior communities are incorporating wellness. Bethesda also hired a consultant, Age Dynamics of Eugene, Ore., to help guide the process.

The final design for the project is unique, Haefner said. "We took bits and pieces and put it all together -- the best of the best."

For instance, the wellness center will be furnished with state-of-the-art exercise and therapy equipment catering to an older population. The heated pool will contain a wheelchair ramp.

There'll be amenities such as a curving glass wall to bring natural light into the pool area, and a juice bar where people can socialize.

"We have a target population hovering in the mid-80s. It's going to be user-friendly to seniors," Dewane said.

Bethesda officials don't see the wellness center as competition for other local programs, he said. "We're not supplanting; we're supplementing."

The 30,000-square-foot addition also will enable Bethesda to strengthen its range of services.

There's a growing demand for adult day services, but the program has been unable to expand because it's out of room, Dewane said. In its new space, it will be able to take more clients and better tailor its services.

Short-term rehabilitation also will be expanded with new rooms and dining areas for the residents.

These are people who are in the nursing home for only a short time, typically undergoing therapy or receiving extra care after joint replacement surgery, a stroke or other health episode, Haefner said.

There's a need to differentiate the short-stay unit from the traditional nursing home model, she said. "They're different populations with different needs and different cognitive levels. Therefore their goals are different. The goal in the short-stay unit is to go home."

Bethesda received seed money for the project in the form of a $250,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services and a $30,000 grant from the Mardag Foundation. A capital campaign and private donations raised another $300,000.

"Those donations and grants made this project more financially viable," Dewane said.

The Bethesda Foundation also will be raising $100,000 over the next year to buy therapy and exercise equipment.

On the Bethesda campus alone, there are more than 400 older adults in skilled care, assisted living, independent living and adult day services who will potentially use the new wellness center.

"We're hoping the community will also see the benefit," Haefner said. "We're going to encourage and hope that people take advantage of it."

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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