Editor’s Take: How I Survived a Senior Living Fitness Class

I visit my grandmother at her assisted living community in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin about once a month, typically to chat for a few hours or to help with whatever jigsaw puzzle she has out on her table.

During one visit, she suggested that I tag along for the community’s daily stretch, and I agreed, eager to understand more about what her day-to-day life entails. I then spent the next half an hour in one of the facility’s common areas, tapping my feet, lifting swimming pool noodles above my head and wiggling my fingers and toes.

So when I recently headed to The Mather to participate in an hourlong, aerobics-based workout class, my expectations weren’t terribly high. I had an idea of what was ahead after discussing fitness programming at the life plan community in Evanston, Illinois with Anita Tomasevic, life enrichment manager, and Beth Bagg, director of resident services. But my low-intensity experience at my grandmother’s had me thinking I would hardly break a sweat.

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I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The fitness area itself took me by surprise, first and foremost. Hydraulic weight machines are scattered throughout the space, along with various types of cardio equipment. Across the hall is an indoor pool, and within the onsite gym is a studio complete with air-suspended floors, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and a barre installed along the length of them.

The possibilities within The Mather’s fitness center are extensive, as well. Class offerings range from yoga and pilates to Zumba and mid-day core blasts, while personal training sessions are also available. Of course, residents can work out on their own if they so choose, and competitions like an in-house triatholon hosted in mid-2015 provide motivation to stay active.

“The operative word here is choice,” Bagg said. “Some people are class-focused. Others want to work one-on-one. Others want to be independent and do their own thing. We target and accommodate every preference.”

Essentially, The Mather has established a full-fledged gym within the community—and the classes reflect that.

“The instructors who come, they teach at the same intensity as in the regular gym,” Tomasevic had told me. “It’s not pared down because [the participants] are older.”

So yes, I had been warned about the cardio-centric, high intensity class dubbed Power Hour Plus that I attended. But as I grabbed two sets of free weights—one heavy and one light—and a resistance band, I still had my doubts.

The class started with a basic warmup to get the approximately 10 participants moving, followed by the beginnings of a cardio combination. Grapevine left, and then grapevine right. A pair of step-touches. Two side squats on each leg. Repeat.

We then moved on to some weight work, alternating between light and heavy weights and moves with the bands along the barre. Following each exercise, we’d return to the cardio combination, adding new components each time. Marches ending with high-knee raises. Zig-zags forward and backward with a reach up high. And finally, several hard stomps to the front, to the side and to the back.

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Within the first few minutes, I had broken a sweat, and about halfway through, I could feel my heart pumping. By the end, I was exhausted, and I regretfully admitted that perhaps some of the residents are in better shape than I am.

Still, my participation opened my eyes to the needs and desires of today’s senior living resident. Sure, a general daily stretch might benefit some seniors, depending on their acuity. Perhaps the contrast in my experience can be attributed to the fact that primarily independent living residents participate at The Mather’s fitness center, unlike at my grandmother’s facility. Regardless, the reality is that many seek to push themselves in their physical activities, meaning that providers underestimating residents’ abilities does more harm than good.

Of course, not every provider has the resources to incorporate such thorough fitness offerings, but even bringing in an instructor every so often can make quite a difference.

“It takes away the barriers of having to get in a car and go to the gym,” Bagg said. “This makes it way more likely for residents to engage.”

Beyond fitness itself, there’s a social aspect to consider. Tomasevic told me that many seniors socialize around the classes, providing the example of one group going for coffee, partaking in a 20-minute calorie burner session and hitting the pool together afterward. And Bagg said fostering relationships between residents and staff proves beneficial, as well.

“The focus is the relationships that we bring to the table,” Bagg said. “When they see the commitment on our side, then they’re more likely to be collaborative with us, to follow up, to stick with the program.”

All I know for sure after a single workout class at The Mather is that I could really benefit from that type of fitness environment, as I’m sure countless others could, too. And maybe—just maybe—that it’s time for me to seriously assess my own fitness goals.

Written by Kourtney Liepelt

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