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Bethesda at forefront of aging demographics, new expectations

Jerrie Dodge, center right, coaches a water aerobics class at Club Bethesda in Willmar. The club, open to people age 50 and over, has more than 500 members. The fitness programs are part of Bethesda’s wellness center. People in their 50s and 60s who’ve never set foot in a nursing home come to Bethesda’s Wellness Center every week to use the customized exercise equipment or swim in the heated therapeutic pool. Tribune photo by Ron Adams1 / 3
Jeanine Christianson uses the leg extension/curl machine at Club Bethesda, which is an integral part of Bethesda’s Wellness Center. Tribune photo by Ron Adams2 / 3
Bethesda’s new Welcome Center has created a more seamless approach to assessing what people need, according to Kris Johnson, admissions coordinator. Tribune photo by Ron Adams3 / 3

Bethesda opened its wellness center in 2010 with a forward-thinking purpose — health and fitness for middle-aged and older adults.             

Bethesda leaders hoped they could initially get 100 people to sign up to become members of the new Club Bethesda. With 300 signups the first year, they succeeded far beyond their expectations. Two years later the wellness center has more than 500 members from 32 towns in the region, some as far as 50 miles away.

What many of the members like most is how the facility and its programs are designed with an older population in mind, said Melissa Wentzel, director of Club Bethesda.

“I think that’s really special to people,” she said. “They appreciate that.”

Bethesda Health and Housing has been at the forefront of a major demographic and cultural shift: the graying of America and new expectations for how people want to age.

“The whole shift in terms of payers and expectations is to keep people out of the nursing home,” said Doug Dewane, chief executive of Bethesda.

It has meant a new direction for providers of services to older adults. The need for skilled nursing care is not likely to ever go away, but providers also are branching out into independent and assisted housing, short-term rehabilitation, adult day services and specialized care such as memory units. Services increasingly are designed not only to provide care but also to help an adult population that wants to age well in the community.

Bethesda exemplifies this approach, starting more than two decades ago with the development of housing options for older adults.

“It was a step out of our comfort zone. We knew nursing homes but we didn’t know housing,” Dewane said. But the board of directors was watching the trend and “took the plunge,” he said. “We wanted to provide the full continuum of care.”

Independent and assisted living was followed by the addition of short-term rehabilitation, home health care, adult day services and a memory care unit. Last year Bethesda launched an initiative to become a regional magnet for people with Parkinson’s disease.

The driving force has been to provide services that meet a full range of community needs, said Lori Petersen, the community outreach and marketing staff person for Bethesda.

“Some of those areas were unknowns but there’s a need — a huge need,” she said.

Options, flexibility

A key trend shaping the market is the growing consumer desire for options and flexibility, Dewane said. “People are shopping more and they have greater expectations than they’ve ever had.”

What this means for the industry is more amenities: buildings that look residential rather than institutional, mealtimes that are flexible rather than rigid, the ability for residents to have more say over how they live. For example, when Bethesda developed one of the region’s first short-term rehabilitation units in the 1990s, all the rooms were private and had Internet service.

The focus increasingly is on the customer, which sparked the development of Bethesda’s Welcome Center, a one-stop resource center for helping families sort through a growing array of options.

The Welcome Center has created a more seamless approach to assessing what people need, whether it’s assisted living or home health care, and matching them with the right services, said Kris Johnson, admissions coordinator. “It gives them much better customer service and direction.”

“Sometimes people call and they don’t know what they need,” Petersen agreed. “They can come in and get a tour and make a quick assessment of the situation.”


The opening of the wellness center was an even more innovative step — one that aims to help middle-aged and older adults stay healthy, age well and delay the need for expensive nursing home care as long as possible.

Baby boomers are starting to swell the ranks of the aged. Their life expectancies are longer than those of their parents’ generation but they’re also living with more chronic conditions, and many observers predict their sheer numbers will strain the health care system beyond its capacity.

It’s an issue that calls for nursing homes to redesign themselves as a community resource, Petersen said. “It’s huge for us to offer services to help reduce those numbers. If we can help people start to think a little bit more about physical fitness, that’s going to help.”

Wentzel sees people in their 50s and 60s who’ve never set foot in a nursing home but come to the wellness center every week to use the customized exercise equipment or swim in the heated therapeutic pool.

She’s increasingly seeing clients who want to strengthen themselves before having surgery such as a knee replacement.

“We get referrals constantly from doctors,” she said.

Even in their 80s and 90s, members are benefiting from the fitness club, Wentzel said. “I had someone tell me it’s really motivating to see the 80- and 90-year-olds.”

Dewane said Bethesda “would never go back to the way it was.”

“I think we decided that if we’re going to continue to be in the aging services, we need to address that wave of baby boomers. We wanted to stay ahead of that curve and make sure those emerging needs are being met… We’ve got to be ready for that.”

Anne Polta

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

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