Newark YMCA & Vicinity Pilots a Resident Facilitated Program with Seniors

May 13, 2021

Twelve seniors will be designated “leaders of change” as the Newark YMCA pilots a resident-lead Policy, Systems, & Environmental (PSE) Change program with their senior residents. The Healthy at Home program, created by the NJ YMCA State Alliance and the Newark YMCA housing program, is part of the NJ SNAP-Ed program. The program aims to support SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) eligible community members in living healthier lives by providing nutrition education and options to remain active. The program debuted in December 2020, and is designed specifically for senior housing sites. 

The backing of NJ SNAP-Ed funding enabled the Newark YMCA to hire Community Health Worker, Erica Williams, to lead this program. Williams serves as a liaison between the residents and other community partners to provide support and services for healthy eating, physical activity, and overall health. She helped the seniors establish the site’s first 12-member Resident Wellness Council (RWC). One of the RWC’s first goals is to implement policy change regarding “senior only” fitness times. Applying such a policy ensures that the seniors who live in the building can exercise in a welcoming environment; be able to practice social distancing comfortably; and have a trainer to help them exercise safely. 

Additionally, the RWC is working on its first environmental change for residents who live in the Newark YMCA high rise. Every floor has its own kitchenette and the wellness team wants to make the kitchen spaces more functional for preparing healthy foods. The plan is to include educational posters and signage in the kitchen area to encourage the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Shelves are being assembled for a spice rack to encourage residents to choose other options rather than salt. 

Senior housing sites are the ideal setting for programming and intervention, especially with the pandemic increasing the amount of time seniors are at home. The pandemic has exacerbated health issues for the aging population and hammered home the need for targeted services that can support their overall health and wellbeing. In New Jersey, the elderly represents 17% (142,000 individuals) of SNAP recipients but only 48% of eligible seniors are receiving SNAP benefits. Seniors experiencing food insecurity are at higher risk of diabetes, hypertension, and depression. Erica helps these Newark seniors get referrals, manage medications, and schedule health and wellness appointments.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic requiring seniors to stay at home supporting their health and well-being is more important now than ever before,” said Michael Bright, President and CEO at Newark YMCA. “Our residents are our biggest champions for health and this program supports them in making the changes they want to see happen. We can’t wait to see what changes they suggest over the next year, and how it supports the health of all of our residents.” 

The program hopes to expand next year to the Newark YMCA’s other locations and will eventually be replicated and scaled statewide. Future plans include action-planning trainings, creating more Wellness Councils, and connecting each housing site to its own SNAP-ED Nutrition Educator. Ideally, the program aims to have one resident-led wellness team for each location, with each team making local changes that are most relevant to them. The RWC’s efforts have already resulted in health and wellness improvements in many of their residents through nutrition education, physical activity, and policy changes.