Seniors are zooming their way to fitness

IN HER SOCIAL worker role at Project Independence, Eileen Lawson has learned that live videoconference is one way to keep seniors physically active, which is vital for overall health.

It’s the community we were so afraid we were going to lose, and the camaraderie we were so afraid we were going to lose. And it didn’t get lost.
— Eileen Lawson

MIDDLEBURY — Sometimes a chair is just a chair, but right now for many elderly clients at Project Independence a chair can be much more.
In fact, after the senior center shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a chair might be a home gym, a dance floor or a tour bus. 
Project Independence, a branch of Elderly Services Inc., is an adult day center serving Addison County. It typically provides at Elderly Services’ Middlebury headquarters a wide variety of closely supervised, intellectually stimulating and physically beneficial activities to seniors with lessened mobility.
Until March, Project Independence’s many clients typically attended daily from around 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Now as many as 90 people overall and about 15 per session log onto Project Independence’s four daily online Zoom offerings. The number of the program’s Zoom-friendly participants has grown by about 50% since May. 
The 19 offerings for the week of July 13 to 17 included a tour of the downtown Middlebury construction project, a storyteller, two live music and two reading sessions, and, last but not least, four exercise sessions. The exercise sessions, which include dance, were designed to give participants a workout from the safety and comfort of their favorite chairs.
“The variety we’ve been able to offer is really pretty fantastic,” said Project Independence Assistant Activities Director Ted Davis.
Those exercise sessions are vital. The Centers for Disease Control list a number of benefits for seniors from regular physical activity: Benefits which, in the CDC’s words words: 
•  Help reduce the risk of falling and fracturing bones.
•  Reduce the risk of dying from coronary heart disease and of developing high blood pressure, colon cancer and diabetes.
•  Can help reduce blood pressure in some people with hypertension.
•  Help people with chronic, disabling conditions improve their stamina and muscle strength.
•  Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and fosters improvements in mood and feelings of well-being.
•  Help maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints, and help control joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis.
Program Activities Director Ken Schoen said Project Independence tries to offer at least one Zoom exercise session a day between 9:45 a.m. and 3:45 p.m., and that clients didn’t need convincing of these benefits.
“There’s one thing that participants will say when they’re coming in often: Use it or lose it,” Schoen said.

The issue was how to translate these benefits online. When participants came to Elderly Services Project Independence employees and volunteers could supervise them directly to ensure their safety. 
Donations through the United Way of Addison County, St. Mary’s Catholic Church and generous individuals provided enough hardware and Zoom software. 
Then there was the question of how to make sure as many clients as possible could possess and understand the technology to allow them to view and participate remotely in group exercise and dance activities.
Thus, Davis, Elderly Services employee Geetha Wunnava and others offered families and participants the necessary training to exercise safely — in person if necessary. 
“We program these laptops and figure out ways on the screens so they can easily get there,” Schoen said. “It’s a huge road to climb, and we’ve been climbing it.”
Those offering exercise and dance classes also learned and adapted to make sure everything could be done by seniors seated comfortably and safely. 
For example, the popular Bonebuilders exercise classes abandoned leg weights for fear participants might fall while trying to attach them without the help they received in person.
“We have a number of us who have been trained to lead exercise in ways that are safe. So it’s just a lot of movement, a lot of posture, a lot of moving your arms, moving of your head, moving of your torso, lifting of your legs, doing it in sequence, and understanding doing it in a way that people aren’t causing injury to themselves,” Schoen said. “And everybody has their own programs.”
Project Independence Social Worker and Coordinator of Participant Outreach and Support Eileen Lawson said it is more important than ever for the program’s senior clients to exercise now that they are homebound, without the daily movement that attending Project Independence in person provided. 
“To be able to safely exercise is critical,” Lawson said. “Because some of them might not be getting out of their chairs too often during the day because they don’t have help in the house. Or their caregiver, who is their daughter, is now working. Now we’re getting them moving.”
Schoen, Davis and Lawson said those who have been leading the sessions have made it fun. Among those they cited were Alice Leeds’ “Dancing in Your Chair” sessions, and Betsy Stine, who typically uses props and showed up to lead the July 3 workout in full red, white and blue regalia that included a top hat. 
“She does her thing in her own way, which seniors really relate to,” Schoen said. “She has this entertaining way about her, and she is able to engage the participants.”

Lawson said the participants are also thrilled to see and interact with each other and with the Project Independence employees and volunteers, something that happily has carried over into the virtual realm.  
“One of the things that has absolutely blown us away is when we were in that building until March 17 we had this camaraderie with all the participants and staff,” she said.  
“And now we’ve brought it to the screen. We’ve brought it to the telephone. So all the folks that attend all our programs have no hesitation to bug Ted and say, ‘Where’s our Tai Chi? How come we’re only doing it to this kind of music? We want this kind of music. Where are all the pencils for coloring?’ It’s hysterical. But it’s the community we were so afraid we were going to lose, and the camaraderie we were so afraid we were going to lose. And it didn’t get lost. Which is amazing.”
Schoen said he has also been pleased that clients with “different cognitive abilities” have all been able to participate, in some cases surprisingly so.
“Some people are totally sharp as can be. Others have different levels of dementia and memory loss. We’ve been surprised at the ability of some folks with cognitive issues, how focused they are and how connected they are, more so actually than they are when they’re in the building,” he said. 
Schoen said there are theories why, possibly that it’s easier to focus on a screen without the distractions of a crowded environment, that some clients had computer backgrounds, or maybe that learning something new is sparking participants.
Regardless, Lawson added, “People are learning and feeling the connectivity.” 
The camaraderie helps encourage the participation, Schoen said. Schoen, himself 69, now plays tennis three times a week and encourages all his age peers to remain active. He said one thing that helps is to make exercise a social event. 
“For a lot of people exercising on your own is hard to do. If you do it with a group, or with someone else, it becomes a lot easier, you become more motivated because you’ve got that group energy,” he said.
“I would say my advice to people who are not Zooming is find someone safe you can exercise with, even if it’s Facetime or going for a walk with a friend safely. You have to schedule yourself every other day with something that is going to give you a little cardiovascular.”
Schoen expects demand for Project Independence’s Zoom offerings, possibly especially its exercise sessions, to grow when the weather cools. 
“It’s amazing to me that even with good weather we’re having people attending, and we have good attendance,” he said. “My guess is come fall and winter that’s going to exponentially grow.”
Of course, like most nonprofits, Elderly Services has felt the effects of the pandemic and has had to furlough staff members.
“My hope is we’re going to expand our program quite a lot. To do that, however, we have to figure out how to pay for it, which is a big challenge, because at the moment we’re down to 24 staff members. We’re relying a lot on volunteers,” Schoen said. 
“(I hope) somehow we get people in the community to realize that this is important so that we can increase this. Because I’m convinced that Zooming in particular has incredible value for our isolated elders.”

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