Ballroom Dance "Swings" Through Youville

A circle of Youville residents forms around a young man dressed in black. They wait with expectant smiles as the young man cues up big band music. In the most natural manner, he approaches “Mary,” a 100-year old resident who uses a walker. “Would you like to dance?” he asks. As the music plays, the young man and older woman glide across the floor together.

Dance instructor J Michael Winward and Youville resident Anna Pier partner up for a foxtrot during "Steps in Time," the bimonthly ballroom dance class held at Youville House Assisted Living Residence. 

Dance instructor J Michael Winward and Youville resident Anna Pier partner up for a foxtrot during "Steps in Time," the bimonthly ballroom dance class held at Youville House Assisted Living Residence. 

The man is J Michael Winward, a dance instructor who offers special ballroom dance classes for older adults like those at Youville House and Youville Place. With Mr. Winward leading, Mary is able to follow his steps and get into the rhythm. She is smiling, but is also focused, as are the delighted spectators in the room.

Twice a month at Youville, residents like Mary are transported in time, often surprising themselves by how easily they can relearn familiar dance steps. It helps that Mr. Winward is a natural at engaging them. A professional dancer who has won numerous competitions, he looks forward to dancing with Youville residents just as much as they enjoy dancing with a talented young partner. 

“I am inspired by the idea that people of all ages can have the chance to dance,” Winward says on his website. “Ballroom dancing has the power to bridge generational and cultural divides.”

For many who came of age during the Depression and World War II, ballroom dancing was an important part of social life and popular culture. Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly made timeless films in which fancy dancing was the main attraction. Though these films may seem dated to modern viewers, the allure of ballroom dancing – both as spectator and participant – lives on. Reality shows like “Dancing with the Stars” have exploded in popularity, and younger people today are discovering that dance offers a unique, structured opportunity to socialize, bond with partners and learn a new skill.  

Regardless of one’s experience or agility, dance has wide-ranging health benefits. It is one of the few cardiovascular workouts that enables us to connect physically with music in a structured social setting. Regular dancing strengthens bones and tones muscles throughout the body, leading to increased overall strength as well as improved balance and coordination. In older age, improved coordination can be invaluable in preventing falls and osteoporosis.

Dance can also reduce the risk of heart disease, the number one killer of Americans today. Just 30 minutes of moderate dancing can burn 150 calories. Long-term benefits include reduced blood pressure and improved circulation.

If it’s been a while since you last “cut a rug,” here is a brief, by no means complete, overview of some popular ballroom dance styles.   

Cha Cha

The Cha Cha came to American ballrooms in the 1950s. Danced to 4/4 music, the steps are manageable because they tend to be short. The Cha Cha emerged from the music of Cuban composer Enrique Jorrin and the Orquesta American. The signature “cha-cha-cha” move came about as dancers improvised a triple step while dancing to this music.


Arguably the most energetic of ballroom styles, swing dance features versatility, complex steps and bold improvisation. There are many types of swing, most of which come from African American communities. The most well-known is the Lindy Hop. Like the dance itself, Lindy Hop’s christening was itself an improvisation. When asked to name the dance, “Shorty” George Snowden riffed on one of the most noteworthy current events of the time: Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. “Lindy Hop” was born. 

The Foxtrot

You’ve surely danced the Foxtrot, one of the most straightforward of ballroom dances. It is danced to 4/4 time. According to an instructional video on Jazz Age dances, the steps are “just walking.” Dance partners hold each other close and coordinate long, sweeping strides across the dance floor.  

The popularity of ballroom dance has ebbed and flowed since its initial swell of popularity in the 1930s and 40s. In a 1992 New York Times article, a dance instructor from Princeton, Neil Clover, offered the following theory: “Whenever we have had a war or hard times, ballroom dancing has been popular.” Mr. Clover’s words ring true. In the midst of conflict or political upheaval, ballroom dancing can reaffirm a sense of collective civility and creative energy. 

Youville offers Mr. Winward’s “Steps in Time” program for older adults, twice a month in Cambridge and Lexington. The program is free and open to the public. To learn more about the Cambridge program, contact Yanira Motto, Director of Marketing of Youville House at 617-491-1234. For the Lexington program, contact Susan Snow, Director of Marketing at Youville Place at 781-861-3535.

A Pilgrimage to Rome: Understanding Youville’s Catholic Identity

The Youville Assisted Living communities are among many diverse properties that make up Covenant Health, a not-for-profit, New England-based healthcare organization. These organizations share a unique sense of mission that remains rooted in the values-rich tradition of Catholic healthcare.

“Mission plays a central role in the culture of Catholic care,” says Nicole Breslin, President and CEO of Youville. “No matter what their religion, people who work in Catholic healthcare are drawn to the deeper significance of what they do, not just the paycheck they get at the end of the week.”

Youville CEO Nicole Breslin, Youville Board Member Leslie Adkison and Youville COO Joanne Scianna attend the Papal Audience at St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday, October 26th, 2016, during the Covenant Pilgrimage to Rome.

Youville CEO Nicole Breslin, Youville Board Member Leslie Adkison and Youville COO Joanne Scianna attend the Papal Audience at St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday, October 26th, 2016, during the Covenant Pilgrimage to Rome.

This mission-oriented culture is palpable at Youville, where residents’ physical, intellectual and spiritual well-being are valued equally. Maria Benoit, Director of Mission and Spiritual Care, provides programs and services that engage a diverse population. “We certainly provide Catholic Mass and Rosary, but we also reach out to other faiths,” she says. Benoit has celebrated Passover Seders with Jewish residents, organized meditation groups with a Buddhist monk, and spoken on the histories and beliefs of Islam as part of an ongoing lecture series. At Youville House, in Cambridge, she has enlisted interns from Harvard’s Divinity School to lead programs and provide additional pastoral presence for residents. She has reached out to a seminarian from Pope St. John XXIII Seminary to provide similar pastoral services for residents at Youville Place, in Lexington. This emphasis on spiritual engagement is unique to Youville, and it is made possible through our connection to historical Catholic values. 

In what sense is Youville “Catholic”?

Mary Prybylo, MSN, President and CEO of St. Joseph Hospital, and Sr. June Ketterer, SGM, enjoy the view from the Abbey of San Eutizio in Umbria. The Covenant group learned about the history of Benedictine monks who lived here and developed microsurgical techniques that were later taught to lay medical professionals. 

Mary Prybylo, MSN, President and CEO of St. Joseph Hospital, and Sr. June Ketterer, SGM, enjoy the view from the Abbey of San Eutizio in Umbria. The Covenant group learned about the history of Benedictine monks who lived here and developed microsurgical techniques that were later taught to lay medical professionals. 

This past October, all of Covenant Health’s senior leaders and board members made a pilgrimage to Rome. Over 150 leaders, from the many organizations that make up Covenant, spent a week touring ancient sites and focusing on mission, charism, and the legacy handed down by the different orders of women religious that preceded Covenant. 

“It was very powerful to be with so many people who have found their vocation in Catholic healthcare,” said Breslin. “There was a deep sense of mutual respect and reverence for the sisters that established all of this.” 

The pilgrimage culminated with an in-person report presented to a dicastery, a department of the Roman Curia. Covenant Board members presented verbal reports to bishops from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life inside the Vatican. Covenant Board members reported on Covenant’s accomplishments over the past year. In turn, the bishops were able to ask questions relating to how Covenant was carrying out the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Church, particularly with regard to care for the poor.  

“They were very impressed with the report,” says Sister June Ketterer, SGM, who currently resides at Youville Place. “I was impressed too.”

Why does Covenant, a lay organization, report directly to the Vatican? It would not be an exaggeration to say that Sister June is a big reason. A leading figure in the Grey Nuns administration, Sister June became the founder and president of Covenant Health almost 30 years ago and remains on the Board. Faced with an aging population of sisters and a decline in new membership, Sister June founded Covenant with the vision of eventually shifting the Grey Nuns’ healthcare organizations to a lay model of sponsorship. In doing so, she wanted to ensure that these organizations retained their Catholic identity. In 1996, the Grey Nuns and Covenant found the solution in a unique form of sponsorship, called the “public juridic person.” This designation made Covenant Health an official Catholic entity in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

“It is a complicated-sounding term,” said Sister June. “‘Public juridic person’ is a canonical word. You could understand it as the Church’s version of a civil corporation.”

By transferring to a lay model of sponsorship, the Grey Nuns ensured that their hospitals and assisted living residences would continue to serve communities in the spirit of St. Marguerite d’Youville and the Church.  “The Church’s willingness to endow a lay organization with “public juridic person” standing shows how much confidence they had in Covenant,” says Maria Benoit. 

This is why, every five years, Covenant reports directly to Rome, taking leaders from across their many health care institutions with them. The Covenant Pilgrimage is an important reminder for all lay leaders of their responsibility in carrying on the important mission begun by the Grey Nuns and other religious orders.

This trip marked the final pilgrimage for Sister June. Some 30 years after founding Covenant, she feels grateful that she was able to be with the Board for one final report to Rome. “After the report, I felt that I could go back to Youville in peace. I knew that our hospitals and assisted living communities were in good hands.”

Make Your Story Your Cause

Youville resident Alice Raulinaitis, pictured with Lead Programs Assistant Yanira Motto, drafted the initial proposal for what would become the Citywide Senior Center in Cambridge.  

Youville resident Alice Raulinaitis, pictured with Lead Programs Assistant Yanira Motto, drafted the initial proposal for what would become the Citywide Senior Center in Cambridge.  

In 2013 the Huffington Post published an article about an 89-year old holocaust survivor named Thea Aschkenase. A resident of Worcester, she began taking public policy classes at her state university through an “elder education” program. Through the school she became involved with a hunger outreach organization, and was able to draw profound connections to her personal experiences during World War II. The opportunity to speak out about hunger in her community, more than half a century after her experience in Auschwitz, gave her life a new direction. Ms. Aschkenase began speaking regularly to local civic organizations about the effects of hunger on children. She began volunteering regularly at a local high school, campaigned for a free breakfast program, and became a central figure in her community.

Personal experiences are the fuel for policy interests and public action. One of the most inspiring aspects of working in an assisted living community with older residents is their inevitable  swell of stories. Residents in their 80s and 90s have lived through the Great Depression, the hope of Roosevelt’s New Deal, global conflicts, the fight for civil rights, upheavals in popular culture and explosions in technology. Their stories tie in to nearly a century’s worth of important events. 

At the same time, one’s personal experiences don’t have to tie in to earth-shaking historical events in order for them to spark civic action. One can find opportunities to make a lasting difference just by being observant. One Youville resident, Alice Raulinaitis, lived in Cambridge her entire life. She and her husband saw the city they loved go through decades of change and new development. It wasn’t until after Alice retired from her position at Massachusetts General Hospital that she found and got involved in local politics.

“When I retired, I joined a walking group,” she said.  “One day when we were out walking around Castle Island, we encountered a group from the Somerville Senior Center. As we talked, they told us about their Senior Center and offered to give us a tour.”

Alice visited the Senior Center in Somerville and was impressed. At the time, there was no such service for senior citizens in Cambridge. “I just got to talking with my friends and wondered why couldn’t we start something like this in Cambridge?” wrote a letter to the Cambridge Chronicle and ultimately pitched the idea to the City Council. She started a group that became known as “The Penny Rollers,” because they would sit and roll pennies as part of the fundraising efforts for the new Senior Center. Thanks to her efforts, the Citywide Senior Center became a reality on 806 Massachusetts Avenue, where it still stands today. Alice was present at the ribbon cutting.

Maintaining a spirit of civic engagement can be an invigorating experience at any age. Compared to many areas in the world, we are lucky to have the opportunity to make an impact on public life – we are reminded of this every time an election year approaches. We can support policies and candidates that speak to our deeply-held personal convictions, and our choices influence the course of history. Voting is one of the most fundamental civic responsibilities, but it is not the only one. There are many ways and a host of great reasons to get involved with a cause, especially if you are an older adult. After you step out of the polling booth on November 8th, you might consider additional ways to be active in your community.

If you’re not sure what cause should be “your cause,” take a moment and think about a personal story. It could be about something of great importance that happened to you once, something that has shaped who you are or how your life turned out. You will likely find that this story connects to a larger, more public issue. 

On Leaving a Legacy

When we grow older, the idea that we have lived a life of purpose becomes more important. This notion is closely tied to how we view our past accomplishments, as well as how we would like others to remember us after we are gone. It is the work of “legacy discovery,” an important part of aging, though one that is not always clear cut.

Legacy discovery is a work in progress. Youville residents have made many unique contributions throughout life. They have raised strong and loving families, held important roles in business, academia and the arts, served their country and participated in society at every level. Sifting through so many memories and achievements can be daunting. While the word “legacy” might be difficult to get your mind around, the desire to make a lasting mark on the world is one we can all understand.

“Most people think ‘money’ when they hear the word legacy,’ says Maria Benoit, Chaplain and Director of Spiritual Care at Youville. “Even in cases where money is involved, legacies are more about the meaning we have found – and often struggled to find – in our lives. This often has to do with community and relationships.”

Benoit has led life reviews at Youville as a way for residents to put in perspective what was most meaningful in their lives. During life review, Benoit asks participants to construct time lines of important life events. The events may be good or bad. She encourages people to discuss the events and explore their underlying significance. By the end of a life review, residents gain perspective on what matters most to them. Often, this can be traced back to events very early in life.

According to David Solie, an expert in geriatric psychology and author of How to Tell it to Seniors, “When understood as a developmental need, legacy insists on being addressed, either consciously or unconsciously. It’s the end product of life review, a developmental mandate of those privileged to survive into old age. Once we enter this stage, we constantly reconsider our lives to determine how we want to be remembered.”

One Youville resident, “Mary,” moved to Youville in her late 90s. By the time she celebrated her 100th birthday, she was still going out most days to visit friends and relatives. She has spoken often of the importance of continuing to make new friends in later life. “At my age, I’ve outlived all of my old friends,” she once said. “If I never made the effort to make new friends, I wouldn’t have any friends today.”

In many ways, Mary’s legacy is already well established. After she is gone, her network of younger friends and family will remember her active, friendly personality, her humor, her grace and her penchant for gratitude. In addition, she will leave her mark through the professional life she led as a young, independent woman, and the remarkable life she continued to lead as a centenarian.

How will we be remembered by those who come after us? Older adults can start the process of legacy discovery through a life review. This month, Maria Benoit will lead a life review to help residents put their past accomplishments in perspective.  

You might consider the following questions when beginning your own life review:

• Who was most significant person in your life?

• What was the biggest obstacle your family had to overcome?

• What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

• What do you consider your greatest disappointment?

• If you could change anything at any time of your life, what would it be?

By reflecting on these questions, you can begin to hone in on important personal themes. Life review is an ongoing process and will likely lead to additional questions before answers start to emerge. What you will see slowly emerge is a life lived with unique purpose - one that is truly all your own.

Aging parents? The five biggest mistakes to avoid when visiting from out of town

If you have out-of-town parents, you are likely to be making plans for an overdue visit this summer. Regardless of how frequently you check in over the phone, an actual in-person visit can be both eye-opening and frustratingly difficult, especially if it’s been a while since your last visit.

I work with many families experiencing the tension that comes from care-giving for aging parents. I have found there are five common mistakes made by adult children that increase tension. Whenever I visit my own 90-year old mother in Philadelphia, I find if I can avoid these mistakes, it makes a world of difference in the quality of our time together.  

1.     Don’t expect your parents to be the same

You could be surprised by the changes you find if you see your parents infrequently. Physical frailty, loss of hearing or vision, and mobility issues all become more noticeable over time. These changes impact quality of life, adding stress and complicating even the simplest tasks of daily living.

2.     Don’t misinterpret short temper for “meanness.”

When older people experience a loss of control over their environment, it can translate into anger or irritation. Think about how frustrated you might become if you couldn’t participate in planning a family meal or had difficulty understanding conversations going on around you. Be compassionate and offer support in dignified ways.

3.     Don’t lose patience.

Older people often require more processing time to understand what is being said. It can be difficult to follow a conversation when the speaker is speaking quickly. Hearing loss increases the difficulty of understanding what is being said even if being spoken to directly. Remember – speak more slowly. Make direct eye contact. Many cues come from facial expressions. Wait patiently while your listener absorbs what has been said, processes it, and finds the words to respond. Take extra time to explain what is being discussed and ask for input.

4.     Don’t offer too much help, at first.

As we age, we all want to maintain our sense of independence. Automatically doing things for someone might seem helpful, but can be interpreted as a lack of respect or loss of dignity. Offer only as much support as is necessary or requested. Ask before doing things that involve someone’s personal space such as zipping up a coat or placing a hat on someone’s head. Consider that such actions can seem parental, and while older adults may need assistance, it is humiliating to be treated like a child.

5.     Don’t assume they will be okay on their own.

If you are noticing changes, there are many more shifts in ability, safety awareness and cognition that you may not be seeing. The ability to plan and prepare nutritious meals, manage medications, and keep up with simple housekeeping chores can easily become overwhelming. You may not be aware of difficulties in managing finances, home repairs, or coordinating transportation and medical appointments.

Find time to speak to your parents in private. Ask about how they are managing. Listen without telling them what you think they need to do.  If one parent has become the caregiver for the other, be sure to pay attention to the dynamics of the situation. If one thing were to change, would the entire “house of cards” come crashing down? Keep in mind that the care-giving parent is often at greater risk due to the added burden of stress.

Get professional advice.

The difficulties of managing a household tend to grow over time, and the best time to discuss solutions is before a crisis occurs.

As both an assisted living professional and the daughter of an aging parent, I understand the difficulties many families experience as parents age. At Youville, we help identify solutions and offer advice to families before they are in crisis.  Assisted living is not always the first right choice. Home-based help is often a first step. Understanding options and how to identify the right level of support is crucial in keeping your parents healthy and safe, ensuring they are experiencing their best quality of life. Contact the family doctor to discuss concerns. Additionally, the local Council on Aging or senior center is often a good resource for local services and support.

-Dinah Olanoff, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications

Why Exercise is Great for The Brain

Charles Dickens, one of the most brilliant voices of Victorian literature, had an unusual way of sparking new ideas. After a long day spent writing at his desk, the world-famous author would regularly set out on the streets of London and walk at a brisk pace. On these daily walks he would find himself dreaming up new characters and devising the next plot twist of a novel in progress.

Dickens’ walks were not just casual strolls. They were intensive physical feats that could last for hours. According to his own testimony in The Uncommercial Traveler, “My last special feat was turning out of bed at two, after a hard day, pedestrian and otherwise, and walking thirty miles into the country to breakfast.”

Dickens’ exercise habits may seem extreme, but they likely had a significant effect on his creative output. Neurologists have discovered that aerobic exercises such as walking, pedaling, swimming or jogging are associated with an array of cognitive benefits and that older adults have just as much to gain as any other age group. You may not be able to walk 30 miles like Dickens, but whatever you can do to elevate your heart rate for an extended period is likely to make you feel better and think more clearly.

Exercise Promotes Vascular Health in the Brain

There is a correlation between unhealthy capillaries in the brain and unhealthy synapses. When synapses get old from continually firing signals from one neuron to the next, they start to wear down and shrivel. This process results in cognitive decline, and seems to accelerate when the capillaries that deliver blood to the brain are unhealthy. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “autopsy studies show that as many as 80% of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also have cardiovascular disease.”

Aerobic exercise burns calories, reduces cholesterol and accelerates the heart rate, keeping blood vessels happy. As the heart pumps blood throughout the body, the capillaries in the brain are replenished and fortified, providing neurons with ongoing “fertilizer” and ensuring that their synapses remain strong.


There is compelling evidence that exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells – in rats, at least. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Jyvaskyla tested a large group of mature rats, dividing the critters into three test groups. One group jogged long distances on a wheel every day. Another lifted tiny weights with their tails (yes, you read that correctly!) while climbing a wall, and a third group engaged in interval training. A fourth control group did not exercise at all.

The scientists wanted to monitor which form of exercise led to the most significant growth of new brain cells – a process called “neurogenesis.” They were able to track brain cell growth by injecting the rats with a special dye that would mark new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain we use for memory and learning. Ultimately, this study found that aerobic exercise can “double or even triple the number of neurons that appear afterward in the animals’ hippocampus compared to the brains of animals that remain sedentary.”

While neurologists have long suspected that exercise was important, they now believe that it can actually stimulate the growth of new cells in the hippocampus. Incidentally, the hippocampus is the first area of the brain to be attacked by Alzheimer’s disease.

Reduced Stress

Chronic stress overloads the body with cortisol, the hormone that triggers our “fight or flight” response. When stressful situations overwhelm us, our ability to think abstractly and perform complicated tasks diminishes. Too much cortisol over the long term has been linked to adverse effects such as high blood pressure, depression and dementia.

Exercise helps the body fight stress in multiple ways. When we are active, the body releases a stream of endorphins that can improve mood throughout the day. At the same time, many find that exercise has a relaxing effect. The reason for this is somewhat counterintuitive.  Because exercise puts strain on the body, it catalyzes the release of cortisol, the “stress hormone.”  Over time, the regimented exposure to cortisol during exercise helps us to increase our threshold for stressful situations encountered in daily life.  

If you live for your intellectual pursuits, or simply enjoy having a sharp mind, you should embrace a routine of exercise. At Youville, we offer structured exercise opportunities six days a week. Residents can start their mornings with Stretch & Flex, Balance Challenge, Yoga or Broadway Seated Dance. In the afternoon,  residents have the option to join Walking Club during the spring and summer months, or a group exercise class led by Forever Fit.