Preventing problems with exercise for elders

The chair yoga class at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

Outside the Anchorage Senior Activity Center in mid-December, melting snow dripped off the roof on to icy walkways. Inside, Eileen Apodaca joined three other women in the dimly lit exercise room for Tai Chi class. Facing a wall of mirrors, Apodaca patiently practiced her moves, like monkey stealing peaches.

“Ok, grab your peaches,” she said as she pantomimed reaching down and grabbing something. “Hold them tight, look both ways.”

She tightened up every muscle in her body as she clutched the imaginary peaches against her belly.

Eileen Apodaca practices Tai Chi at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

By practing the 3,000-year-old Chinese martial art, Apodaca was helping prevent a statewide problem that doesn’t have a solution – yet. In many parts of Alaska, seniors have trouble accessing proper medical care and finding doctors who accept Medicare. Organizations across the state are working to solve the issue but meanwhile others are trying to make the need less pressing by focusing on prevention. In this case, exercise for seniors.

Seventy-one-year-old Apodaca said the slow and delicate Tai Chi moves that focus on balance and shifting weight have made a significant difference in her life. “I was falling down a lot three years ago. And when I started doing this – I haven’t fallen down.”

Apodaca had polio as a child, which impacted her legs. As she gotten older, the lingering effects have made it harder for her to get around. Her physical therapist recommended she try Tai Chi because the movements aren’t strenuous, but they provide a whole body workout. Some research says it helps overall health.

Apodaca, a former elementary school teacher, said she doesn’t get sick as often since starting the exercises. “Of course, I’m not around kindergartners either!”

Falling is a huge issue for older people. According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, it’s the number one cause of injuries for Alaskans who are 65 and older. Falling led to 1,600 hospitalizations in 2015, each of which cost about $55,000. And falls can lead to more health problems – healing is harder when you’re older.

Richard Pankowski prefers gaining balance and flexibility while sitting down. Twice a week he goes to the senior center exercise room, settles into a padded chair and stretches his legs out, resting them on another chair. For the next hour, he stretches all of his muscles and meditates during a chair yoga class.

“I need the exercise to stay young and supple because of the fact that when you get to be 90, you get a little stiff, a little old,” he explained when leaving the class. “And you don’t want to do that. You don’t want to become a couch potato. So I can still climb a ladder and go up on a roof, and get yelled at for doing it.”

He said even the little stretches help him do things like turn his neck to look around when he’s driving, which makes everyone safer.

Brittney Mitchell, fitness activity supervisor at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center, shows off a letter of appreciation from a senior. (Hillman/Alaska Public)

Brittney Mitchell, the fitness supervisor for the Anchorage Senior Activity Center, said some people have physical improvements very quickly. One woman said it only took a week of working on the exercise machines to help her limp. Others have steadily improved their balance over time through dance focused classes.

“It’s very rare when I have people from dance cardio [class] fall anymore. And if they do, it’s for something very silly like [tripping over] a dog.”

Tripping over pets is a major cause of falling. Area rugs on hardwood floors and slippery bathroom surfaces cause problems, too. In fact, even in ice-covered Alaska, most falls happen in the home, when people aren’t being as cautious.

But exercise options are doing more than just keeping seniors upright – they’re helping them connect. Isolation and loneliness cause health problems, too. Friendships prevent that.

“Our treadmill walkers like to watch people in the parking lot,” she said. “And so they just strike up the conversation that they like someone’s shoes.” That chatting leads to the exchange of phone numbers and growing relationships.

Those friendships are part of what keeps Opodaca coming back to Tai Chi class.

“The camaraderie of our group – we’ve just really gelled as a group. We go out to lunch and stuff,” she said.

Overall, Apodaca said she feels more positive. The exercises haven’t solved all of her problems, of course. She still worries about getting to places, like to her friend’s house for a dinner party.

“I’m already having anxiety about how am I going to walk up her driveway, especially in the ice,” she said, fretting over an invitation for the next day. “And how am I going to get up her stairs carrying a casserole. And I already have kind of anxiety feelings like eeeh!”

Apodaca knows she can’t do everything she wants to, like travel to some places and go up steep stairs, but she’s more confident in getting around in her day-to-day life.

“You just have to have an attitude about what you’re capable of and what you’re not capable of,” she said. “And you can’t grieve it. You just move on and do what you can. And be positive.”

She said working out helps her do that.

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