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At Howard County senior living facilities, in-house salons boost residents' well-being

For Howard Magazine

About every five weeks, 85-year-old Cynthia Bonora calls up the salon to make a hair appointment with the stylist who has been beautifying her for 12 years.

“It’s not just a haircut,” says Bonora, who comes in to get her short, wavy white hair trimmed, washed and blown dry. “We also gossip and talk and have fun catching up.”

Bonora lives at Heartlands Senior Living in Ellicott City, where Connie Runkles has been running Connie’s Clippers, a full-service salon and barber shop inside the facility, for more than 30 years.

For Bonora, the best part is that she doesn’t have to go far and can travel by herself to her appointments. Though the Heartlands resident considers herself independent, she no longer drives and uses a cane or walker to get around.

“It’s so convenient,” Bonora says. “She does a great job, and we’re lucky to have her.”

Runkles, 65, was recruited to work at Heartlands by a woman she worked with at a different salon. She didn’t realize how much she’d enjoy working with seniors until she started cutting hair at the facility.

“I think it is because I can relate to them better and they really appreciate the work that I do,” Runkles says.

Inside the salon, a sign reads, “Studies show that a good haircut and a good hairstyle can do wonders for our self-esteem.”

And the potential benefits for seniors don’t stop there; a 2014 study by Concordia University found that lower self-esteem led to increased levels of cortisol – the body’s main stress hormone -- in older women and men, and vice versa. Researchers concluded that maintaining or improving self-esteem could help prevent health problems associated with aging.

That’s why Heartlands management thought that it was important to include the salon among its health services, with a focus on not just physical health but mental health and confidence as well.

“We’re trying to focus on what a good day is for them, and sometimes that’s having their hair done and feeling refreshed and important,” says Bonnie Hobbs, a registered nurse and assisted living director at Heartlands. “It’s crucial to uplift their spirits and provide socialization, and that’s exactly what the salon does for a lot of our residents.”

Heartlands isn’t the only local senior housing with an in-house salon — Lorien Harmony Hall in Columbia and Park View at Ellicott City also offer the amenity.

Several of those who live at Heartlands have standing appointments with Runkles, and she says she looks forward to greeting them and making them feel better than when they walked in. Everyone signs in when they come to get their hair done, and she picks a name at the end of the month to receive a complimentary full-set hair service.

Runkles says that some residents are reluctant at first to come into the salon because they’re uncomfortable with changes in their routines, but once she can get them in the chair, she says they often return regularly.

“For those who aren’t so sure about coming into the salon at first I try to be goofy and make them feel comfortable,” Runkles says. “After they get a nice wash and realize I’m not going to hurt them, it becomes a really positive experience.”

Hobbs says she has noticed improvements to the health of the residents to go to the salon.

“When there’s that type of personal care of seniors, you can see their blood pressure and circulation improve significantly,” Hobbs says.

Bonora noticed a change in her health when she first started getting her hair cut and styled by Runkles.

“When your hair is done and looks good, you feel better,” Bonora says.

Hobbs says the convenience is priceless for seniors who would miss out on the salon experience as they got older.

“It’s amazing because sometimes it’s the highlight of their week, and you can tell that it increases the quality of their life, especially for those who do not have family that comes to take them out or if they’re not physically able to get out and go to the salon. It’s beyond rewarding to see that they’re able to have this done in comfort of Heartlands.”

Bonora says that having the salon nearby means that she doesn’t have to skip appointments because of the weather or times when she may not be feeling up to traveling.

“You don’t have to go out to have it done,” Bonora says. “If it’s a cold and winter day, Connie’s here and it’s done.”

When Runkles looks back on her time at Heartlands, she gets nostalgic because she feels like she found her calling.

“This is my home. When I leave here and I wake up the next morning I’m excited to come back in,” Runkles says. “This is my family. I’m definitely not ready to retire anytime soon.”

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