Caring for seniors through integrative therapy

Kendra Willey said she was employed from the time she was 14 years old, but she never really loved work—until she started working with seniors.

A friend recommended that Kendra work as a dietary aid in college, and she began working at a skilled nursing facility in Bloomington, Minnesota. “I looked forward to going to work every day. I just so enjoyed the relationship-building and learning about people and their stories and their families.”

Now, Kendra serves as Wellness Resource Coordinator at Good Samaritan Specialty Care Community in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. “I didn’t necessarily pursue working with seniors as a career. Now I can’t leave because I love it so much. It’s a good problem to have,” Kendra laughs.

Kendra’s job entails leading integrative therapies and wellness training with residents and staff, both in groups and one-on-one. Whether it’s chair yoga, acupressure, aromatherapy or tai chi, Kendra says the goal is to help people be more comfortable. For individuals who need more help, Kendra creates sensory experiences. Kendra points out that her wellness training involves everyone, including administrators, dietary aids and facility employees.

Kendra’s favorite part of working with seniors is their stories. “I love hearing stories about their lives and things that are meaningful to them and their families. Some people aren’t as verbal, but I love seeing what makes people happy and what makes them tick—like a joke that makes them laugh.”

Kendra acknowledges that it can be challenging to work in integrative therapy. “It’s an emerging field. I have a lot of autonomy to do new things and be creative and think outside the box, but it’s also a struggle when you’re helping write the rules and develop best practices.”

The biggest misconception Kendra faces in her profession is the idea that she’s looking for a certain response from people. “In physical and occupational therapy, a staff person works with someone because they have goals to meet, so there needs to be a certain level of participation. In integrative therapy, people can participate as much or as little as they want to. The primary reason for a visit is to bring peace and comfort, and a person has the choice to engage as much as they feel comfortable.”

Working with seniors has changed Kendra’s perspective on aging. “Being up close and personal, aging is definitely de-mystified and something I look forward to in a certain respect, because I’ve seen people go before me.”

Kendra says she was lucky to grow up with elders in her family close by. “They are lovely people. I remember loving my great-grandmother so much,” Kendra recalls. “One of my favorite family stories is when I crawled in her bed in the middle of the night as a child and she didn’t have her teeth in and I was just fascinated, not scared like she thought I would be.”

Working with seniors inspired Kendra to choose an integrated daycare for her young son. “It’s been good for our family and good for my son to see his ‘grand friends’ and learn how people are different and still able, whether they’re using a walker or a wheelchair to help with mobility. It’s not something to be ashamed or afraid of.” Sometimes, when Kendra drives her son through the neighborhood, he’ll point out the window and wave at his ‘grand friends’ out walking.

It’s surprised Kendra how much vitality human beings hold, especially seniors. “That light and brightness is so much stronger and more powerful than I ever anticipated. There’s so much knowledge and experience that we have access to as a society. You just listen.”

“Senior care issues should matter to all Minnesotans because if you’re lucky enough, you’ll also be a senior someday,” Kendra emphasizes. “I think it’s a topic that Minnesotans should be engaged in because it really affects all of us. And if we’re trying to be a true community, you should care about everyone—including those who maybe need care you’re not familiar with.”

Kendra encourages those considering a career in senior care to give it a go. “There’s so much to be gained from working in senior care. The benefit to yourself is a whole reason, let alone the opportunity to care for someone else.”

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