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Power of Action:  How Team Competitions Transformed A Senior Community—And Shrunk A Few Tumors

  • Jul 20, 2023
  • Cathy Gasiorowicz
  • 6-min Read

When residents of Eagle Point Senior Living, a Lifespark Community, were introduced to the concept of the Spark Challenges in 2022, they thought the staff had completely lost their minds. And in a way, they had—ditching the age-old mindset of ‘We’re here to take care of you’ and replacing it with ‘You’re capable of extraordinary things!’

“Every year, we’d make resolutions, vowing to be more active,” said Jennifer Thompson, Executive Director at Eagle Point. “But last year, for the first time in my 22 years in health care, we went from talking about it to actually doing it.”

The catalyst for this change was the Spark Performance League, the brainchild of Dr. Bill Thomas, nationally renowned geriatrician, author, and Lifespark Chief Independence Officer. “Aging is a team sport, and at Lifespark, we take it literally,” he said. “When you shift your focus from decline, disease, and disability to strength, purpose and belonging, amazing things can happen.”

Team spirit

Since the launch of the Spark Challenges in 2022, residents of Lifespark’s 32 Senior Living communities have competed in National Forklift Racing, the TRYathlon Tournament, and the GRIP Games. Each Challenge includes pre-season practice sessions and seven weeks of competitions, play-offs, and the World Championship. In the hallowed tradition of high school and college sports banquets, each season concludes with a Friendship Feast featuring great food, a shared purpose, and the distribution of custom-designed pins.

Jennifer, an ultramarathoner who competes in 100-mile races, said that experiencing the Spark Challenges with the residents has been deeply inspiring. “People who’ve never done anything like this before in their lives are joining teams, participating in the competitions, being cheerleaders, or organizing events,” she said. “It’s literally transformed our community into a place where elders come to live and thrive, not a place to come before they die.”

The impact of the Spark Challenges has reached even beyond Eagle Point, Jennifer said. “After the TRYathalon, one family member contacted me to say, ‘Thank you for giving me my mom back.’”

Healthy contagions

Coming out of the global pandemic, the need for community and connection in senior living has never been greater. “Just as the COVID-19 virus is easily transmitted, so are strength, purpose and belonging,” he said. “These are highly contagious virtues and you catch them from your teammates.”

Since the Spark Challenges began, Jennifer has witnessed this phenomenon in action, as more and more residents have gotten involved and spread their enthusiasm throughout the community. But of all the triumphs, one story in particular stands out.

“When Kathy and her husband Lance moved here in the fall of 2020, we were in full COVID lockdown—meaning, no communal dining, no group activities, no outings, no outside visitors—so we weren’t aware of the depth of Kathy’s depression or Lance’s rapid decline,” she said.

Following a serious mental health crisis, Kathy reached out to the staff for help. After two hospitalizations at a psychiatric treatment facility, Kathy slowly began coming out of her apartment and joining residents in the dining room. She also agreed to let the staff find Lance a home in Eagle Point’s Memory Community where he could get the care and support he needed. As he started to flourish, so did Kathy.

Cascade of victories

Then, in the fall of 2022, not long after Lance passed away, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and given no more than six months to live. By January, her health had deteriorated to the point where she needed a wheelchair and oxygen.

But that didn’t stop her friends from encouraging her to participate in the TRYathalon. Initially, Kathy resisted, but their persistence and enthusiasm finally persuaded her to join in. “The COVID lockdown was my comfort zone, but now that Lance was gone, I wanted to hang out with my friends,” she said.

Jennifer noticed that with every competition, Kathy’s confidence increased. “She was smiling more, her circle of friends was growing, and more often than not, I’d find her in the lobby area instead of her apartment,” she said.

Although Kathy agreed to compete in the biking and simulated swimming events, she avoided the walk/run competitions. Eventually, with a lot of “You can do this!” from her teammates, Kathy agreed to give it a try. Holding on to Jennifer, she took ten slow steps. The next week, she doubled her step count. And then, during the Final Four, she took off her oxygen, let go of Jennifer’s arm, and ran 55 steps down the hallway and 55 steps back to her teammates—without the support of a wheelchair, walker, or oxygen.

When asked what inspired her to go for it, Kathy said, “I knew that to move on with my life, I had to do this—but also, it’s really fun!” It was a big victory, topped only by the oncologist’s news that her tumors were shrinking. “I decided I’m not going to let cancer hold me hostage,” she said, adding that she started doing physical therapy to strengthen her legs and lung capacity.

Move, eat, sleep, heal

As a competitive athlete, Jennifer is a big believer in Dr. Thomas’s approach to health and wellness, which he explains in his free eBook, MESH – Move, Eat, Sleep, Heal. During the TRYathalon, she scheduled at least one day of rest between competition days. “We also offered nutrition classes to teach people about healthy eating, added protein at meals and snacks before competition days, and gave everyone a Spark Performance League water bottle to help them stay hydrated,” she said.

To keep the momentum going, she and the staff have continued to host post-season biking, swimming, and walking competitions. A good thing, too, said Dr. Thomas, who designed the apparatus for the upcoming GRIP Games. He described it as a space-age-y-looking contraption involving rubber bulbs and plastic tubing hooked up to a water meter that measures how many gallons the team members pump through the closed-circuit system.

“The only way to make the water move is by squeezing the rubber bulb in coordination with your teammates,” he said. “What’s really important about this—besides being part of a team, sharing in a common purpose, and having fun—is that it increases grip strength which improves health outcomes and decreases mortality.”

Whatever comes next, Jennifer knows the experience will transform people’s lives. “Kathy is just one of the many individuals forever changed by the Spark Challenges, and that includes me,” she said. “Experiencing this cultural evolution alongside our residents has made me a better person and a better leader.”

To learn more about Lifespark’s approach to aging magnificently in a campus setting, visit Lifespark Senior Living or call us at 952-345-8770.

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