A watercolor-style image of an ethnically diverse group of elderly men and women gathered together in the dining room of a senior center for a communal meal.
Social engagement is so important for our mental health, especially during the dark and dreary season. A midday meal with friends can drastically improve our state of mind in such a setting to carry us through the day; AI generated, prompt by Jason Velázquez.

The Third Age: Diagnosing a Health Fair

September 30, 2023

If someone gave me a free hand to create a health fair targeted at seniors, it would include information about nutrition, exercise, sleep, mental health, and stress management. There would be experts in these fields who could answer questions and make recommendations. 

They would hand out informational materials to take home. Vendors might offer raffle prizes like gym time, massage therapy, or gift cards to be redeemed at a health food store or restaurant that specializes in nutritious meals.

Roughly half of the vendors at the “health” fair I recently attended at the Harper Center here in Williamstown were nursing and rehab facilities, providers of in-home care and services and health insurance companies. In other words, most were after-the-fact options. Sure, some of us may need these services at some point, but I was hoping that prevention would be the emphasis of the event.

There were blood pressure screenings, and representatives from the food coop and YMCA were promoting membership, but the room was crowded and noisy, and the raffle prizes that most vendors were offering to draw people in did just that. They also offered promotional merch and sugary treats. Thanks to the vendor who put out apples.

Woman standing at a table with trays of dried herbs, holding Tarot cards.
Herbalist Rebecca Guanzon of Wild Soul River; submitted photo.

Herbalist Rebecca Guanzon of Wild Soul River, 248 Cole Avenue, Williamstown, offered herbal tea to folks who stopped to talk to her and explained how to craft an herbal mouthwash that supports gum and tongue health. Rebecca uses tarot in her practice. I asked her about its health benefits.

“It’s about connecting to our inner knowing that so often gets shut down, second guessed and gaslit in our society,” she told me. “I talk about how tarot can be worked with as divination or as a creative writing prompt, lots of ways to work with it.  I also talk about community care. Not everyone wants to belong to a church, but humans want to belong in some way–finding our herd can be hard.” 

Spirituality, whether traditional or nontraditional, has a place in wellness. We are familiar with traditional health care, but often not with nontraditional. 

The holistic approach focuses on treating the whole person, including their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Nontraditional therapies like herbal medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic care and homeopathy can be used as alternative or complementary treatments to conventional medicine. Yoga and meditation promote relaxation and stress reduction, which can have a positive impact on overall health. Nontraditional healthcare encourages dietary improvement, exercise and other lifestyle choices that help us maintain our best physical and mental health.

The fair might have been promoted as a “health care provider marketing opportunity.” Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but it’s how I perceived the event. Perhaps we could be offered a “wellness” fair, or better yet, a series of wellness sessions. 

They could begin by looking at ways seniors who do not drive or who have mobility issues can get help in procuring healthy food, because nutrition is the first thing I think of when I consider how I can improve my health. How many people who could get senior coupons for the farmers’ market don’t, because they can’t get there on Saturdays. Why do our good works go just so far, then fail to deliver? Senior + coupons + a ride or volunteer shopper = healthy fresh food. During the worst of COVID, local people volunteered to grocery shop for the elderly, and those acts of kindness were much appreciated while we figured out going out in public.

A session on nutrition and cooking healthy meals, emphasis on healthy, would be beneficial. How many times have I gritted my teeth upon attending a meeting for seniors for which the organizers provided donuts. It’s like they never heard of fruit and cheese, vegetables, or other healthy options. 

Social engagement is so important for our mental health, especially during the dark and dreary season. A midday meal with friends can drastically improve our state of mind in such a setting to carry us through the day. Most senior centers offer weekday meals. Elder Services of Berkshire County includes Williamstown in the list of senior centers that provide lunches, but the Harper Center hasn’t actually offered these socially nourishing meals in years. It isn’t just about the food.

Society often assigns an inflexible set of characteristics to us old crones and sages, including about our health. Incorrectly. For example, an exercise class is beneficial for many seniors, but how about also having a physical therapist or personal trainer meet with a group and offer specific exercises to strengthen our hips, knees, etc. We all have different problem areas.

We need to think creatively. Technology has given us cell phones, health monitors, hearing aids, alert systems, and mobility devices. These useful health and connectivity devices are constantly being improved with each new model. So, let’s do the same so that greater attention to our health results in improved versions of each of us. 

Sheila Velazquez

Sheila Velazquez is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in more than 100 print newspapers and magazines, including Grit, New Woman, the Hartford Courant, the New Haven Register, the San Antonio Express-News and Bay Area Parent. Her awards include two from the Society of Professional Journalists for a syndicated column. Sheila has contributed to online websites, including commondreams.org and dissidentvoice.org. She served as contributing editor of Organic Producer magazine and wrote biographical material for reference collections that include “Contemporary Authors,” the “Encyclopedia of International Biography” and “Notable Sports Figures.” Feel free to send her an e-mail.

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