Phil Lee, co-founder of LifeLoop, is an avid fitness enthusiast and has been volunteering at senior living communities for years teaching fitness and mobility classes. In the article below, Phil shares his personal account of heading back into communities to share his love of fitness with residents following the first wave of the COVID pandemic.
10 years ago, if you would have told me that getting back to leading an exercise class for older adults would bring a sense of normalcy back into my life, I would have promptly informed you (with as much courtesy as possible) that you had lost not one, or even a couple, but unfortunately all of your marbles. I would have also told you that if you had any interest in pursuing a career as an eccentric prophet, you should really stop making such wildly obscure and specific predictions about the future. Saying things like “great fortune awaits you” will get you way further. But that’s beside the point. The point is that the crazy-eyed loon 10 years ago would have been proven dead-on accurate, because the world we live in, and the part that we play, changes in unexpected ways. Often drastically. And sometimes very rapidly. These changes can sometimes be profoundly delightful and sometimes can be downright tragic. Like Forrest Gump’s chocolates, you truly do never know what you’re gonna get.
It goes without saying that the last year or two has shown us all both the tragic and the amazing ways that our world can change. It can temporarily make you feel like you’re losing your bearings. The ground that once felt firm, even, and flat can suddenly feel like deep pockets of loose, shifting gravel on the side of a mountain. But we move on and push through. Whatever it might be called, resilience, determination, or simply the human spirit, it pushes us to put our best foot forward regardless of the circumstances and we find that things are OK. Not perfect. They never were. But in some ways better than before. I may be (read: am) getting a little dramatic, but let me explain.
I knew that some things would be different as I returned to Aksarben Village, a senior living community here in Omaha, a couple weeks ago for the first time since the great COVID disruption of 2020 (and now 2021),and there were a lot of things I was unsure about. I wasn’t sure if people would feel comfortable getting together in a room and exercising - I do focus a lot on deep breathing and now that felt slightly scandalous. I wasn’t sure if all, or any, of the regulars would be there. I hoped that my old friends would be there to share my bad jokes and listen to stories about my kids. I wasn’t sure if I remembered the exercise routine I had developed over the years. I was fully vaccinated but still wary about inadvertently exposing the residents to something my immune system, unbeknownst to me, might be handling just fine, but that theirs might not. I wasn’t sure if the staff members would be the same people, or whether they were excited to have volunteers again or viewed me as a potential harbinger of more lockdowns. Uncertainties abound, but that’s just a given in life. If there’s anything positive that COVID has done for us it’s taught us how to live life in the face of deep uncertainty. And then I thought, there I go again getting all melodramatic - its just chair exercise. Turns out that a lot of things had changed, but the important things were still the same.
COVID quarantine, and the well-known mental challenges that come along with it, has shown us how important the very concept of mobility is to our whole-self wellbeing. Whether it’s getting out of your hometown, your house, your room, your chair, or even just moving your body, whatever form it may take for you individually, engaging in purposeful movement is a powerful medicine. Mobility means something different for every individual but the importance of maintaining it does not change at all from individual to individual. Losing your ability to reach, grasp, twist is certainly not the end of the world, but it can have devastating effects on your mental and physical wellness. Far and away the most enjoyable and beneficial way to work on preventing or delaying that from happening is simply getting together as a group for 30 minutes, listening to some feel-good music, and exercising your ability to move. Celebrate your ability to do so. Forget about looking silly, let your guard down and leave your ego at the door. Practice some basic movements. Do so slowly, so everyone can follow along, so you have time to focus your mind on moving your body the way your brain intends, and so gravity has a chance to make it surprisingly challenging (thus beneficial!). Recognize your own limitations, or those of the residents in your class if you’re the one leading the way, but don’t let them get you down and prevent you from appreciating the mobility you do have.
Turned out that the residents were really excited to have someone come in from outside the walls of the community. There weren’t as many people there to lift our arms repeatedly, and not all of the old regulars were there, but some were. And it was great to meet new residents. And yes, residents really did want to engage in an exercise program that was slightly different from the same old stuff they were used to, with a new face. It’s nice to show up, be told what to do, be led through the exercises, and not worry about looking silly - everybody’s doing the same thing. They enjoyed the music, the bad jokes, and they didn’t hold back on expressing their gratitude and appreciation. Most importantly, it had been exactly a year and a half since anyone actually enjoyed hearing me sing along to some Elvis tunes. Before that it had been literally forever. I kind of forgot how good it felt to actually make a direct positive impact on the lives of a small group of people. Even if it is a small one. Some things never change.
So, whether you’re currently working in senior living, a family member of a resident, a resident, or just someone thinking about volunteering who happens to be reading this, I highly recommend getting involved and starting, leading, or attending a regular exercise class, walking club, or activity of some kind at a senior living community. I think you’ll find that the benefits to you and the other participants are bigger than they may seem at first. And sing along if you can.