Meet Denise Kelly, Founder of AgeilityMarch 26, 2021
Her occupation? Making people whole.
Most people begin their careers in their early twenties. Denise Kelly began her career in occupational therapy a tad earlier. She was eight.
“There was a girl in our neighborhood with cerebral palsy,” says Denise, founder of Ageility, a national network of outpatient rehabilitation and fitness clinics. “Her name was Gail. I and some of my other siblings volunteered to help her parents care for her. We worked with Gail doing what at the time were pretty innovative therapy techniques called ‘patterning.’ That early experience inspired two of my siblings to become physical therapists, and because I wanted to be different, I became an occupational therapist.”
That early exposure to innovation and compassion, along with a competitive spirit, inspired Denise to go into occupational therapy, a form of therapy that helps people regain the ability to do normal activities. It also inspired her to start her own business to provide something that didn’t yet exist: therapy with a whole-person approach. That business is Ageility, which opened its first outpatient clinic in 2005.
A Passion for Wellness and Wholeness
“I always had a passion for the wellness side of things, helping people help themselves in getting better,” says Denise. “It’s not a passive job; it’s an active job.” The Ageility approach to wellness, Denise explains, emphasizes creative problem-solving. “If you can’t move from the waist down, how do you put your pants on? If you can’t lift one arm, how do you do the dishes?”
But Ageility isn’t just about helping people regain the ability to enjoy the little moments that make up much of their lives. There is a fitness aspect as well.
“Retirement doesn’t have to mean sitting on the couch all day, and we know that’s not what people want,” Denise says. “Older people want to be productive. They want to be as fit as they can be.” A great example of this, she notes, are the National Senior Games, for which Ageility is an association partner. “The Senior Games are the most motivating thing I’ve ever seen,” Denise says. “The games are very competitive, including pickleball, a paddleball sport that combines badminton, table tennis, and tennis. It’s one of the fastest growing sports in the country in the active older adult arena. I play it myself!”
Denise explains that its fitness component is part of what makes the Ageility approach unique. Ageility offers the full gamut of rehabilitative services — physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech language pathology and speech therapy — but also fitness services to address the older person’s other goals, which may include not just getting better but living better. Not just reacting to the pressing need but proactively preventing injury or reinjury. It’s an approach that helps clients live more fully, because when the body reaches a higher level of ability and agility, the mind and spirit are lifted as well. “The traditional occupational therapy model was to tell the patient, ‘Do this,'” says Denise. “But we recognized that many people are motivated to take care of themselves and to be as well as possible.”
And so, although different therapies do wonders for the patient recovering from an injury or event, such as a stroke, “there is also the person who says, ‘My knee hurts and I want to get better so I can play tennis again,” Denise says. The Ageility approach to include the possibility of post-rehab fitness helps residents stretch what they thought possible and strive to achieve their personal best.
“What also makes Ageility different is that we have a hospitality background,” Denise says. That hospitality, concierge-like focus creates at least two benefits, she notes. First, Ageility clinics are located within senior living communities, allowing flexible scheduling and daily availability for residents versus visiting therapists whose time and schedules may be limited. Second, Ageility clinics make available larger and more sophisticated equipment such as recumbent bikes and electronic balance platforms that visiting therapists can’t bring with them.
Setting a New Course: One Client’s Story
Denise recalls one resident, a man in his seventies who loved golf but had had a stroke that prevented him from getting back out on the links. “He had gone through an inpatient rehabilitation stay where they worked on certain goals, and they were good, but they didn’t focus on some goals that were important to him. He wanted to get back out on that golf course.”
Following inpatient therapy, the man returned to his senior living apartment but without golf, his social life had dried up. “He had been very gregarious, the life of the party,” Denise recalls. “So that was tough.”
Once the man entered outpatient care with Ageility, however, things changed for the better. “Because the damage from his stroke prevented him from playing a full game of golf, we created an abbreviated golf game for him,” Denise said. “We had a putting green in our facility, so we started him on the putting green and went from there. He was able to reconnect with what he loved.”
Older = Still Growing
When asked what she loves most about Ageility’s clients, Denise doesn’t hesitate. “Older people don’t see themselves as ‘old,'” she notes. “They’re still growing. They’re continuing on their journey. That’s why I love our motto: ‘Your potential is our passion.”
Denise’s own journey took her from her early neighborhood volunteering to Boston University, where she earned her BS in occupational therapy, and then to Lesley University, where she earned her master’s in healthcare management. She later founded Ageility and today serves as senior vice president, overseeing 208 outpatient clinics and 27 inpatient clinics in 28 states.
And what about Gail, the young woman with cerebral palsy who inspired Denise to become a therapist all those years ago? “She grew up to have a good life,” Denise says. “She married and had children. She inspired my sister and brother and me at a young age to go into this field. I think that’s kind of cool.”
Ageility is reinventing rehab for older adults with a whole-person approach to wellness. Are you or a loved one looking to reach your personal best? Visit us to learn more about our programs and services.