By TIM NORRIS
HERALD NEWS, Tuesday, October 9, 2007
From left, Gladys Botello, 66, Felicita Tapia, 65, and Fernande Dewols, 74, participate in tai chi as part of the Active Adult Fitness Program at the Paterson YMCA.
These women right here, they all transformed themselves, Melody Jackson-Perry is saying: Christine Miller with her face beaded in sweat, Candida Santiago working that Precor elliptical machine, Ruby Jimenez beaming from a stationary bike, and the amazing Mercedes Borgono, age 79, busting a sinuous dance move even as she hot-steps on a StairMaster treadmill.
Jimenez had the arthritis, Santiago fought high blood pressure, and Miller battled her weight and, even more, serious knee problems, which threatened to hobble her for life. "When Christine first came in here," Jackson-Perry says, "she could hardly walk."
They're all older than 50, some into their late 70s, vulnerable to the tides of living and afflictions of age.
They're also HERE on this early-autumn Monday, the senior fitness class in the main exercise room at the Paterson YMCA. Most among 30 regulars in the group, many from senior centers and meal sites, convene nearly every Monday and Thursday, becoming (to varying degree) stronger, lighter, better. No miracle. They started from nothing, and they kept showing up.
"Once they start coming in here," class director Jackson-Perry says. "they change."
Go from one to the next, and their accounts become a testimonial: weight down, cholesterol down, blood pressure down, enthusiasm up. Their balance is better, and joint pain has ebbed, and they testify to feeling years younger.
They also seem to love the company. "We come in here, we get smiles and hugs," group member Pearl Warren says. "It's kind of like a family, without the fighting!"
When they miss a session, Jackson-Perry frets. So does Mike Curry, who teaches some of the class' tai chi and also picks up a fair share of participants at homes and apartments and housing projects and returns them afterward. Staff members have seen too many who come once, maybe twice, and never again. They remind Jackson-Perry of the many hundreds, possibly thousands of others she and her staff don't see, men and women over age 50 in Paterson and surrounding towns, some of them only a few blocks away, many of them alone, afraid, stubborn, embedded in bad habits and bad attitudes.
Judging from medical research, at least, the need to change seems urgent. Exercise, according to reputable, peer-reviewed studies reported in "Senior Journal," counteracts or limits the damage of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's, osteoporosis (reduced bone density), depression and dozens of other afflictions, and could even reduce risk of breast cancer. It builds muscle, improves mobility, promotes positive thinking and good health habits, and might even encourage growth of new brain cells.
What wins over most newcomers, though, is not science but humanity, someone reaching out. Ideally, outreach would grow from those already in the class. "Most of them had a hard time starting out," Jackson-Perry says, "but we bring them along slowly, at their own pace. And it doesn't take long before they can start to see the benefits."
She and Curry and co-workers Bernard Bacote and Phil Frost aim to conquer an increasingly older population's slug-a-bed mentality and fear of exercise one repetition and one exercise at a time. They know how, they say. They just don't know when, if ever. They need ways to coax them through the door.
"When our seniors, like Mercedes or Pearl, come with me and show what they can do," Jackson-Perry says, "it's like, 'Come on now, if they can do it, you can do it!' When they started out, they weren't like that. Everyone has baby steps. Everything doesn't have to be a competition. We have to start enjoying life."
Making that connection to residents in senior housing or isolated in their own homes or apartments, though, involves money, and information, and transportation and staffing. The Paterson YMCA's program started a few years ago with much fanfare, promising onsite exercise programs in Nathan Barnert Homes, Joseph Masiello Homes and Gordon Canfield Plaza, transportation including trolley service provided by city hall, and gerontology care in partnership with William Paterson University.
Paterson's Y still works on outreach and serving populations in senior housing, executive director Larry Gutlerner says, and staff works almost daily to recruit new participants. But funding is harder to come by, and the university has dropped out. "Finding transportation is an issue," Gutlerner says, "but the biggest obstacle is getting people who haven't exercised to try it. We've gone in and done demonstrations, provided refreshments, given out free T-shirts, that kind of thing. Getting people to take that first step is still a challenge."
The need for senior fitness, regardless, he says, continues to grow with the aging population. "A friend of mine about my age, 60, and an excellent tennis player when he was younger, had a heart attack two years ago," Gutlerner says. "His excuse for not exercising was the one we might all use: We don't have the time. Hey, we can ALL find an hour. Exercise takes work and commitment, sure, but you can't beat the benefits!"
In Paterson, Jackson-Perry agrees, the problem central to poor fitness is neglect. "Negative thinking, poor nutrition, neglecting your body, those can be habits," she says. "We're trying to replace those with better ones."
Exercise, the group members say, is an elixir of youth. Many hugging their armchairs think that exercise will hurt them, Jackson-Perry says, when most research clearly shows that LACK of exercise hurts a lot more. Sure, sudden extreme exertion isn't recommended, and regular medical checkups are strongly urged. Regardless, she promises that anyone coming to the class for as little as a week or two will feel better.
Around the Y, Jackson-Perry is sometimes referred to as "the drill sergeant," and her aerobics classes for younger members are famous for pushing limits. She approaches the seniors more gently. "I'm like a cheerleader," she says. "If I see they can do more, I'll push them, but everyone finds their own pace. When they see the results, they'll nearly always want to do more."
The group joining in that Monday morning appears to prove her points. All say they have increased the length and vigor of their exercise. "You start seeing yourself as a different person," Christine Miller says. "Just stronger and more together."
Up on the Y's fourth floor on the following Thursday, in a racquetball court with an Everlast punching-bag stand in one corner and stationary bikes platooned against the far wall behind rectangular mats, 11 class members follow Bacote's lead in a session of tai chi, the gentle Chinese martial art meant to deliver health and harmony.
"Relax, relax, relax," Bacote tells the group, calmly, as they lift their arms and extend one leg backward in a ballet-like pose. "Suave. Suave." He moves among them, adjusting their postures, sometimes firmly. Marguerita Sanchez, joining the class for the first time, says afterward that she is startled by how she could feel those tiny adjustments all the way up and down her back and legs. "I love it!" she says. "It's beautiful." And Alice Shirley Mays says, "This is great. My body feels loose, not stiff any more. I feel totally different."
Though funds at the moment are tight, Jackson-Perry says the Y staff still hopes to expand the senior exercise class' outreach and recruit new members. When she looks at the faces around her, every one is smiling. "We can't help smiling around here, and that's a really good exercise, too," Ruby Jimenez says. "One repetition, and you feel better!"
OLD SCHOOL: For more on the Paterson YMCA's Senior Exercise program, call 973-684-2320 or look online at www.patersonymca.org
Reach Tim Norris at 973-569-7132 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 North Jersey Media Group Inc.