Becky Zelent was no stranger to the YMCA when she rejoined the organization in 2016 as the new Active Older Adults Director. She'd been the Adult Health and Wellness Director for the Y before taking a detour into teaching high school French for 16 years. Becky feels a camaraderie with those she serves, saying, “I feel I have a personal stake in what we will be doing here at the Y because I too am now of a ‘certain age,’ and I want to age well.” She hopes to accomplish this for herself and older adults in the community by addressing needs related to spirit, mind, and body. Becky recognizes that the health of seniors goes beyond exercise. She believes that not only do seniors have specific physical needs, but with the absence of children and co-workers, they are missing a sense of connectedness that they once had. Her goal is to be intentional in the programming planned through the 55+ activity center called The Landing, in Wausaw, Wisconsin. Becky holds B.A. degrees in Health & Wellness and French as well as a Master’s Degree in Education.
Barb: Our guest today is both an example of midlife reinvention and commitment to a healthy midlife. Becky Zelent is The Landing program director at the Woodson YMCA in Wausau, Wisconsin. We’ve asked her to join us to talk about how we can find new ways to engage in a life at this stage. Welcome, Becky!
Becky: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Barb: So I understand you spent a number of years teaching high school French. Tell me how you found your way to what you’re doing now.
Becky: Well, that is, of course, a bit of a long story. Originally I was a YMCA health and wellness director. My first degree is in health and wellness, and I had taken some time away from that job to be with my family, raise my kids, so I substitute taught a bit. And because I had some training in foreign language, I would often sub in French. And one year, when I was back at the Y doing the health and wellness director job, the principal from East High School in Wausau approached me and they said they were in dire need for a French teacher. I said, “Well you know, I love my job at the Y, and I don’t even have a degree in teaching or in French. And he said, “Well, if you would commit to getting that degree, we’ll commit to you and give you this job because we know you can do it because you’ve subbed for us.”
It was a very hard decision because I did love my job at the Y, but I did feel I was called to do that, and so I did. I took the biggest leap of faith I ever took in my whole life.
Barb: Well, that’s exciting. So if I heard you right, you committed to this new career path, but you also needed to go back to school then to get the proper training?
Becky: Yes, and I have six kids, and at that age, the youngest one I think was in fourth grade? And so it would mean me taking classes at night and studying abroad in the summer. And I did it. You know, I sometimes wonder how I did it, but it took me two years and I did it, and became full-fledged. One of the good things is that I could take a lot of those education classes at the graduate level. I would encourage anybody out there who’s thinking about going back to school, if you have some training already or you have the degree look and see if you can take graduate classes even though they will cost more, at what you are pursuing. So by the time I was done getting this French degree and my license, I was almost at my master’s, which really helped the pay raise and my positioning there. So I was teaching there 16 years worth, total. It definitely was what I was supposed to do.
And then I just felt this calling of “I think I’m supposed to be doing something else.” So I put in my resignation and did not know for sure what I was going to do, but I knew I was capable of getting a job. I had two degrees and a masters degree, I could get a job somewhere, I could sub if I had to and I had to decide. When I am lit up, like I can work on it all day and not be tired and just look forward to every day, when is that? I realized for me, that really does involve health and wellness, but I also like traveling, so how could I put those things together? And I also like learning, you know. A good teacher is a teacher who always wants to be learning.
And so I went into the YMCA. Our CEO, he and I were co-directors when I was there before, now he was the CEO and we talked about how there isn’t extensive programming for active older adults. They have great exercise classes, but there really wasn’t the part that addressed the wellness part. The spirit, mind and body – you know all the tenets of wellness. So I said, I’m going to spend some time making a proposal for what we could do for a program, and I did, and they thought it was a great idea. They had it on their strategic plan to add something like that so it was just perfect timing for both of us.
Barb: Is the YMCA in your community – you were trying to design something specific for your community? Or was this something that was looked at as a more broad adoption by the Y?
Becky: This was really a local thing. There isn’t a model – I’m hoping that our Y will become known throughout the Y community, and it has been in the state. They’ve heard how we’ve grown this program. I’m hoping that other Ys will send their people and say, you know, “What are you guys doing?” Because we are just expanding and flourishing – we’re not the only ones, you know there are several Ys I’ve gotten lots of ideas from the Fox Valley area and also from out in California, because they have so many retired people out there.
Barb: I’ve read about Silver Sneakers, the national program offered in partnership with the Y, but tell me a little bit more about your program.
Becky: What we are doing, is we really kind of address these areas: the socializing part, we know that now the research is showing that lack of socialization is as detrimental as smoking cigarettes for example. And there’s an educational component, things they need to know, they want to know, they want to learn, they like learning, they just didn’t want to go to school any more, but they always want to be learning. Next Tuesday, I’m taking a group, we’re going to tour a botanical garden and there will be a speaker on foraging for wild mushrooms. That’s a good example of some of the kinds of things that we do. And then, of course, the fitness part has always been there at the Y, but we have expanded and will continue to expand that.
Barb: For some individuals, affordability can be a barrier, especially at some of the fitness facilities. Is your community taking that into consideration?
Becky: I have to say that’s probably one of the reasons why my heart has always belonged to the Y, because no one is ever turned away because of inability to pay. That is how we work as the Y. That’s where community funding and support comes into play. That’s one of the reasons in our expansion, we’ve gotten really excellent donations from foundations and from the community.
We’re expanding to add on a separate part of a building that’s just for age 55 and up. Kind of like a senior center.
Barb: That makes sense. And your community doesn’t have a separate senior center to address that?
Becky: Correct, they do not. And so there will be a social membership that costs less than a regular YMCA membership, and even our social membership we will give scholarships for anyone that it’s a monetary issue for them. Just like we do for all YMCA memberships.
Barb: So we talk about aging well often with guests, and we’ve been inspired by women who are taking charge of their wellness at every age. I’m intrigued that you’ve chosen to integrate both physical wellness and social wellness. I’d like to hear a little bit more about how you see the importance of combining that and how do you communicate that, and engage individuals to better understand the importance of those elements?
Becky: Well, I think most of them actually have an innate desire for it. And so, for instance, one of the things that I do is I always encourage them to bring a friend. If you need to get a day pass from us, we will get you a day pass. Because I know they’re more likely to keep coming if their friend comes. And maybe if their friend comes, they might not be too scared to try the new aqua zumba class or the friend – it isn’t just about getting the friend to come so we get more memberships. We truly want our people to feel the success and the only way you are going to feel the success, both socially, emotionally, physically, is to be coming regularly. We design our programs to where non-members can participate in many of the things, like the trips we offer, things like that.
Barb: The trips you offer are sponsored through the Y as well?
Becky: Yes, that’s part of my job is to look into and to organize day trips and overnight trips. Remember I said, one of the things I wanted personally for myself was to be able to travel more, and so when I was making this design of where I wanted our program to go, I just put on the lens of, well, “There have to be more people like me!” People who may not have a partner, who still want to go somewhere, they still want to be active. So I kind of designed a program with what are the things I like to do? We’ve gone to Mackinac Island, last year it was Glensheen in Duluth, this year we are going to Door County. I’m taking a group to New Zealand. And of course you know where my next trip overseas is that I want to go; I want to be able to use my French and take them on a lovely trip to France.
Barb: Oh, that sounds delightful.
Becky: Yeah, we did do Quebec last year. That was exciting!
Barb: I wonder about the new opportunities and challenges that are upon us with all the Boomers now entering that age and stage and wanting and needing those things addressed regarding both social aspect and the fitness aspect. So what do you see as the challenges ahead.
Becky: They’re getting revealed to me day upon day. One of my biggest ones that I see in fitness – let’s just address the fitness side – in the past it was, “Here’s an exercise class for older adults.” That’s what we did. But some of the people – there’s a lady in my step class who’s 78, and she can run circles around me, so we can’t just do, “Well if you are this age, you are this level.” So trying to make appropriately intensified programs without labeling people as being “Here’s for the weak people and this is for strong people.” This is very much a challenge. Even doing the trips, making one that’s active enough. That’s one reason why we are doing our New Zealand trip. It is considered more of an active adventure, and then some of the others are more of a touring adventure. So the different ability levels do not coincide with the age number, if that makes any sense.
Barb: Sure, of course, and I think that might be some of the reluctance for some people to engage in those aged opportunities, because they don’t necessarily identify with a chronological age.
Becky: That’s one reason we are changing the branding of the Active Older Adults at the YMCA to The Landing. The Landing is the name of our activity center, but it’s also going to just plain be the name of our program. So The Landing is who is inviting you to go on the trip. It’s 55 and up, and we’re hoping to get away from even using Baby Boomer. Not everyone wants that title either.
Becky: There are those things, and there are just plain differences in interest, and we are just going to try to address all of them. We’ve held two Q&As where they can learn about The Landing, but also give us ideas for the kind of programming they would like. We’ve gotten great ideas. Here is one I didn’t think of, and yet I personally have experienced. They asked if we would consider being open on holidays. We’ve always closed on Christmas and Easter, only do a half day Thanksgiving, that sort of thing. But for some of them, that’s when they are the loneliest, is on those holidays. So we’ve committed to “We will be open” and “We will hold potlucks on those days.
Barb: Of course. That makes perfect sense. But like you said, it’s not necessarily intuitive to be in operation on major holidays. But for people who are alone or don’t have family around it would be when they would feel that most acutely.
Becky: Right. And of course we’d like to get to the point where the people who are participating kind of take ownership. Maybe Helen is going to organize the MahJongg group and Fred has his Cribbage buddies, and all of that kind of stuff, as far as the social part goes.
Barb: One thing we share is that we’re both from the northern Midwest [laughs], and one of the challenges is the weather and how that impairs activities and mobility at times. How do you address that in your community?
Becky: Well, the biggest change from the last couple of years, because my job has only been going on – this program – has only been going on for less than three years. The biggest change I’m going to make is, we will change to winter hours for some of our exercise classes. They still want to come, but their friend who shovels out their driveway or just even getting the roads plowed, they can’t make the eight o’clock classes like they used to in the summer and fall. So we’ll move some of those to later, so that they can make those. We will up the presentations that we offer on balance and staying safe – the kinds of things we start to think about. We use what happens in their lives to help drive our programming. There will be much more on exercises you can do at home, ways to keep your balance, what do you need to think of regarding driving in bad weather, those kinds of things plus changing some of times to a little bit later start time.
Barb: For those who live in communities that might not have an accessible Y, do you have any suggestions for how women can organize themselves or other community resources that they might access to bring them together for both physical and social wellness?
Becky: It seems to me you always have to have one or two people who are willing to be a leader, right? Doesn’t have to be their job, but they need to be the contact person. We have a wonderful group. It’s not affiliated with our Y, but it’s a great group for the Wausau area called the WAEGOS, Women Actively Enjoying the Great Outdoors. And it’s this group and they’ve just spent time adding to the group, and adding to the group, and they’ll go snowshoeing together, and skiing and things like that. But it does takes one person who has the master email list and that sort of thing.
I think that one of the things I’m very proud of in the Wausau area is we really do seem to be getting it – that we need to be collaborating, so the ADRC, the Retirement Disabilities group, all of the things that are offered in your community, we actually all meeting once a month and say, “What are you guys doing?” “What do you need help with?” So we make ourselves resources to each other. I would encourage people to talk to the heads of those groups to ask: What are you doing? Is there a community calendar? What are you doing to collaborate?
Barb: I think your suggestion of that organization of women getting together for their activity, naturally it’s going to incorporate some aspect of socialization as well, just because that’s just how women interact. It wouldn’t be all about the competition or the fitness, it would be as much, I’m sure, about the togetherness, and just joining with other like minded people who share –
Becky: It really is a like-minded thing and I guess, to your listeners, women – especially women if you are listening – don’t be afraid to be the person who says, “Okay, I’ll organize the knitting group or the go outdoors group, or we go once a month to the movies and dinner.” You know, because everybody will support you and help you. We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve retired – well supposedly I retired, but I didn’t [laughs] – but when we retire, one of the things we steer away from is feeling like we are committed to something. I want to encourage people to know that they can make a commitment, but it’s not going to be as heavy of a thing as a full-time job or things like that. And you also ask for help. You say, “I’m willing to take this on, be the head, but if I need help, who’s going to help me here?” And the women usually pitch in.
Barb: That’s inspirational to hear about. As we wrap up our time together, Becky, I’d like to finish with a question of where do you find fullness at this stage of your life?
Becky: Well, it sounds a bit cliche, but I have always found my greatest fulfillment in service. So I don’t just do – I definitely don’t do a job for the paycheck, even though we all have to pay our bills and things. It’s when you feel as though what you’re doing makes a difference to someone else, whether that’s volunteer or it is your real job, makes all the difference in the world. And I feel really privileged to be making a difference for the people as they get older.
Barb: Your community is fortunate to have you with passion and a vision and the willingness to step forward and try to make changes because it is important, I think. As we try to figure out, we’re going to live to be 85 or 90, and quality of life is so critical around the areas we’ve talked about today – wellness and socialization. And if resources aren’t made available, how can we expect people to do this well? It’s great your community is recognizing that, and supporting you and others in making that happen.
Becky: That’s lovely of you to say, and from what I gather from your podcast, you’re making a difference out there, too.
Barb: Well, thank you. Thanks again for your time Becky.
Becky: Thank you so much.