Libraries offer classes, community for seniors

BEVERLY BLAKENEY OF Waltham, right, uses the stepwise method to teach seniors tai chi at Bixby Library in Vergennes last week. Some of the class participants are, from left, Mary Gordon, Bob McGrath and Grace McGrath. Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that combines slow, gentle movements and physical postures with meditation and deep breathing. Independent photo/Steve James

ADDISON COUNTY — Libraries around Addison County have a lot more than books to offer. For local seniors, those offerings include opportunities to socialize, be active and learn new skills. From TED Talks to Tai Chi classes, local libraries host a variety of programs each week that older residents in the county enjoy … for free.

One of the newest programs is in Middlebury at the Ilsley Public Library, which has started a weekly program that invites local seniors to gather for conversation, community and a variety of activities. The new offering is called “Still & Hip Happening” and meets in the Jessica Swift Community Room on Tuesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12 noon.

Renee Ursitti, the adult services librarian at the Ilsley, runs the Still Hip & Happening program. She said the offering is intended to put a fun spin on a senior social hour.

“The program was born out of a request from a few active seniors in the community who were trying to find things or people — just activities that were a little bit more stimulating,” Ursitti explained.

BOB MCGRATH OF Middlebury is one of several seniors learning tai chi at Bixby Library in Vergennes last week. The practice not only helps participants preserve balance and can help with arthritis and low back pain,it also provides a place for seniors to socialize.
Independent photo/Steve James

Those who stop by for the Tuesday morning gatherings will find coffee, tea and treats as well as an assortment of puzzles, games and art supplies. Ursitti said she’s also hoping to offer different activities each week.

“Those could be TED Talks (presentations by experts on myriad topics), chair yoga, maybe a walk-and-talk book group or a book versus film discussion,” she said. “I’m hopefully going to arrange an animal visit from Homeward Bound, which could become a regular offering. I’ve got a whole host of ideas to throw out and see what the congregant wants.”

Eventually, Ursitti hopes that future Still Hip & Happening gatherings will evolve into what the group’s participants are most interested in.

“I’m hoping once I get a following and start getting feedback from folks that attend, they will sort of take ownership and let me know what sorts of things they’d like to see,” she said.

Ultimately, Still Hip & Happening is intended to offer local seniors a space to gather with one another and enjoy free activities.

“It’s an alternative to some of the opportunities in town that cost money. Folks that maybe don’t have the budget for that, there’s that hope of reaching those people,” Ursitti said. “(Also) building community, gathering folks, letting people know that that library is a place where you can meet people and find fun activities.”

Independent photo/Steve James


In addition to community building opportunities, local libraries also host programs that help seniors stay active.

Those offerings include tai chi classes sponsored by Age Well, which libraries like the Bixby Memorial Free Library in Vergennes host each week. Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that combines slow, gentle movements and physical postures with meditation and deep breathing.

Beverly Blakeney has been teaching tai chi courses for seven years. She’s one of three Age Well volunteer instructors that lead classes at the Bixby each week.

The library hosts three styles of tai chi courses: tai chi for fall prevention, Sun 73 and Yang 24. Each style looks a bit different, with yang tai chi incorporating big, exaggerated movements and sun style using circular hand movements and unique footwork.

Blakeney co-leads an experienced class on tai chi for fall prevention, as well as Sun 73 and Yang 24 courses. She said the classes boast many health benefits for participants.

“We often focus on fall prevention (tai chi helps with balance), but it also helps with arthritis, low back pain and bone density,” she explained. “Seniors need to move to stay healthy as well as have a place to socialize with other seniors.”

Blakeney said classes are taught using a stepwise method, where instructors break down each move into small parts and describe and practice each step before putting it all together.

“For example, we may have a move (Single Whip, for instance) and just start with how to move the feet. Once that is understood by the students we add in the hands,” she said. “It is great when we have two instructors, as one can be talking and moving while the other observes and reports back what parts need work. We encourage students to stay in their comfort zone and we modify moves to accommodate physical limitations.”

Blakeney added that Age Well instructors are trained by Tai Chi Vermont and that safety is a primary concern in classes.

“If a participant is unsteady on their feet, we may have them do seated tai chi until they are strong enough to stand, or we may take multiple breaks,” she said. “We want the participants to feel successful, it keeps them coming to class, moving and socializing. The stepwise teaching method is perfect for that as each small piece can be mastered at a time instead of expecting the participant to master the whole all at once.”

Blakeney said classes tend to include anywhere from six to 25 participants, with attendees ranging in age from 60 to 88.

She noted that the classes appear to be popular amongst attendees.

“The beginning class always has a lot of participants,” she said. “My Yang 24 class is at capacity, so I think the participants really enjoy the classes. I think once participants learn the mechanics of the form, they really start to enjoy the movement and the synergy of the class.”

INSTRUCTOR BEVERLY BLANKENEY is flanked by Grace and Bob McGrath of Middlebury as they build strength and balance during a tai chi class at Bixby
Library in Vergennes this past week.
Independent photo/Steve James

Blakeney enjoys taking part in the classes as well.

“I really enjoy meeting the seniors in my community (I’m a senior) and being a part of something that brings so much joy to people,” she said.

Age Well’s tai chi classes are free and geared toward individuals age 60 years. In addition to the Bixby, classes are offered at the Ilsley Public Library and other community spaces in the county, including the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Holley Hall in Bristol and on Zoom.

Those interested in joining a class can find more information on Age Well’s website at

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