Fernanda Carlosama Ruiz, IONA

IONA senior services is an organization that works to provide a wide range of services for the aging population in DC. Located at St. Alban’s church, the faith-placed Active Wellness program is just one branch of IONA. Active Wellness is a day program where DC residents over the age of 60 can socialize, engage in art projects, participate in exercise classes and more. The activities are tailored for the older participants, for example, twice a month there is an event called “Our Human Bodies” with Dr. Thom Bowles where participants can ask the doctor general questions about their health. Also, the exercise classes include stretching to alleviate back pain, a focus on rotator cuffs, and leg strength, with tips on preventative care in case of falls and muscle injury. In addition to this, a nutrient dense meal is provided each day. This organization is working to fulfill the needs of the aging population by providing a space for senior citizens to stay active, well-nourished and involved in their community.

Throughout the semester I was primarily involved in preparing and serving the meals. Armed with a hairnet and gloves, I helped plate all of the pre-prepared meals and assisted with distributing them to the participants. In health promotion, we learned about MyPlate, a visual depiction of the USDA Dietary Guidelines. It calls for mostly fruits and vegetables with, a quarter of the plate representing protein and a quarter grains. The plates were always colorful, and it was evident that the government funded meals followed the nutrition guidelines. The meals were also served with a cup of milk, which is also represented in MyPlate.

Although the food service was fun, my favorite part of the experience was engaging in lively conversations around the room. Social isolation is a threat to the aging population, and IONA works to unite the community and reduce loneliness among older people who have retired or live alone. On weekdays, the atrium of St.Alban’s is full of laughter and noise. I had some interesting conversations with the program participants about their life stories, the things they wish they had done differently, and their views on current events. I always walked out of IONA feeling like I had learned something completely new. Additionally, on some days, students from the nearby elementary school visit IONA to play bingo or do arts and crafts with their “grand-friends”. It was enlightening to see the age gaps melt away through colorful drawings of leaves and fish. This rejuvenated the program participants while also teaching younger kids about how to interact with older people who may have certain disabilities, such as limited mobility or dementia.

The program would not be what it is without the program director, Courtney Tolbert. Watching her interact with the participants and tackle the daily issues that arose with a smile, taught me a great deal about leadership. With everything she did, she put the program participants first and did everything in her power to accommodate their needs, even in the most difficult moments. She brought a calming, joyous presence to the program, and I will never forget her kindness and warmth. Overall, this experience has affirmed my interest in public health, and I hope to continue to be involved in the future.

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