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For seniors health, good choices equal good times

Experts say today’s elders are more active, better informed on health than parents

Published: September 15, 2014      
Dwain Hebda
Anne Chudy works out during a morning aerobics class at the North Little Rock Athletic Club. The octogenarian exercises regularly in between volunteering at her home parish, North Little Rock’s Immaculate Conception Church.

At 8 a.m. on the dot, a group of ladies strut into the aerobics room at a North Little Rock gym. There’s eight of them and nary a one is under 55, including the instructor who puts the women through their paces with a mix of good-natured banter and barking commands. The disco music blaring from the corner speakers says it all:  “Good times … these are the good times …”

For the undisputed grande dame of the class, 86-year-old Ann Chudy, these are in fact the good times. When many of her contemporaries are sleeping in or reaching for the remote, she’s here at the North Little Rock Athletic Club and not just for aerobics, either. On the other of her four-day-a-week workouts, the Immaculate Conception parishioner’s either doing pilates or lifting weights.

She grudgingly gave up her five-mile jogs on doctor’s orders at 75; otherwise it takes an act of (or for) God to divert her from the gym.

“If I could’ve worked it in I’d be doing yoga,” she said. “But I thought I probably better go to adoration instead.”

It’s not the first time Chudy has stood at the intersection of faith and fitness; on a trip to Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia, she scaled the mountainous terrain toward the shrine there, despite a bad hip.

“I got to the top of that mountain and God told me, ‘Keep going.’” she said. 

The days of aging parents or grandparents rocking away their final years on the front porch are rapidly disappearing. Better understanding of preventative practices, wider accessibility to recreation and exercise facilities and just plain refusal to surrender to Father Time have led the 55-and-over set to redefine what it means to grow old gracefully.

And, thanks to the graying Baby Boomers’ vast numbers, they’re forcing change in how others look at them too.

“Every step of the way, this is a generation that dramatically changed America,” said Diane Harry, 64, director of senior services for CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs. “Just because they’re getting older, they’re not afraid to say, ‘The heck with you, I want to go dancing. I want to take Zumba lessons.’”

Harry, whose office oversees two Senior Centers in Garland County, provides programming accordingly. The most recent calendar of events includes tai chi, dancing and other physical activities, but as well, stimulate mental fitness through board games, fashion shows and overall social connectedness. It’s part of meeting the organization’s seven centers for senior health: physical, environmental, intellectual, spiritual, vocational, emotional and social.

Programming to these elements means more than just breaking out Yahtzee now and again. Economic factors that keep seniors in the stress of a job longer, the reality of hunger for many older Arkansans and seniors’ rising level of anger means staff devoted to seniors have to be much more skilled in how they serve the population.

“There are lots of places that treat older people as if they are invalids or stupid. We treat our seniors in an age-appropriate way,” Harry said. “Once you actually start listening instead of telling, you invite people in.”

Brian Rega, director of senior services and housing for St. Bernards Healthcare in Jonesboro, echoed these sentiments, stressing variety of activities and programs offered through the system’s 13 Senior Life Centers in seven counties. From hot lunches to book clubs, exercise classes to shooting a game of pool, it’s all about connection and community.

“Our Memory Care Unit has identified some of the risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s,” he said. “One of these is a decline in social cognitive engagement which is what happens when someone is at home, lonely, sitting in front of the TV.”

Rega said while something as simple as a jigsaw puzzle can help stave off a withering of mental capacity, the more one is involved in the lives of others, the better.

“It’s about finding a social outlet, and working within a group,” he said, adding this is one of the reasons volunteers generally are happier and more healthy, a claim backed up by a just-released study published in the Psychological Bulletin. That report showed seniors devoting a few hours a week to volunteer activities enjoyed better health and longevity that those who didn’t.

All of this isn’t to say there’s still not a long way to go. Rega said on average a person is diagnosed with memory issues every 68 seconds. Harry points out more than 14,600 older Arkansans go to bed hungry.  Transportation issues and old-fashioned stubbornness makes outreach difficult in many areas.

Still, the tallest barrier for many seniors is simply making the decision to start and that, says Chudy, lies entirely with the individual.

“How do I put this? There are people out there who enjoy their illnesses — a lot. I don’t,” she said. “Exercise contributes to longevity; it keeps all the body functions operating, so I keep going. I’m trying to use myself up.”

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