Almost a decade ago, IDEA member (21 years and counting) Molly Lynn had a pivotal discussion about the specialized health and fitness needs of people in her age group (mid to late 70s and older). Lynn, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a friend agreed that fitness professionals offered very few programs for much older adults. They decided they would be the ones to meet the challenge. Lynn did the footwork, her friend helped fill in the administrative spaces, and Senior Exercise Lifestyles Services (SELS) was born.
Lynn, who is now 88 years old, is far from being a stranger to the fitness world. Her career began in the 1940s in New York City, and Joseph Pilates was one of her teachers. She worked her way to Minneapolis as a dancer, choreographer and instructor. She began personal training long before it was considered a viable career path. In the mid 1980s, with years of experience already under her belt, she became certified as both a personal fitness trainer and a Pilates instructor. Lynn believes that fitness is integrated into every part of a person’s being, and includes emotional and intellectual aspects. She strives to remind others about this concept of wholeness. “Once people begin to lose some of their physical abilities, society tends to think of them as ‘less than’ in all areas of their lives,” Lynn says. “But they have a mind just like [the rest of us] and it works great!”
SELS is a small not-for-profit organization that employs four personal fitness trainers. The crew works with low-income older adults in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The county offers SELS to a limited number of clients who are selected by social workers based on need, illness or injury. Each client is matched with a trainer, who visits once or twice a week, at no charge to the client. The program is designed around the client’s particular needs and largely relates to restoring function and helping with activities of daily living.
Lynn believes that it takes a certain kind of person to work with these clients—not just someone who has the experience and training to offer a program suited for limited abilities, but someone who is also compassionate, empathetic and sees the “whole person.” IDEA member Mia Bremer is one of the people she found who fits that description.
Bremer started training in 1999 after years of teaching group fitness. “I found out fairly quickly that I most enjoyed working with people who were new to exercise or had some physical limitation keeping them from feeling successful,” she says.
Bremer, who began working for SELS in 2002, describes what it is like working with a “typical” client. “Often, our clients have limitations on many levels,” she says. “They have physical issues such as hip replacements, stroke or heart issues, joint problems and disease. They may live in small spaces and have few places to safely walk or be active on a regular basis, and they have limited financial means. Our main goal is to first maintain the clients’ current physical abilities so they may remain independent in their own homes. Beyond that, our goal is to improve quality of life in whatever way is appropriate through improved cardiovascular fitness, strength training, range-of-motion [exercises], flexibility training and balance and gait training (if the client is ambulatory). Last, a session with a SELS client requires a great deal of listening and problem solving. It is very important that a SELS trainer is creative and inspiring under difficult circumstances.”
SELS has touched many people and changed many lives. Bremer learned a lesson about new beginnings from her 77-year-old client Zeonia Hubbert, a preacher’s daughter from Monroe, Mississippi. “Zeonia lived through the civil rights movement and was very involved in politics in her 30s and 40s,” Bremer says. “When I started working with Zee, she had uncontrolled high blood pressure because she was uncomfortable with the medication’s side effects and wouldn’t take it regularly. She was not housebound, but she was depressed and spent much of her time in her small apartment. We started taking short walks in her neighborhood and incorporated strength and flexibility training each week with bands and small free weights. We moved to a stability ball and a stationary bike, which she used most days of the week.
“Her blood pressure [stabilized] this past year even though she still does not take her medication (note: all SELS clients must have a doctor’s release before beginning a program). Even more impressive is the confidence she has gained through exercise and getting reacquainted not only with her body, but also with her voice. Her enthusiasm for politics resurfaced, and in 2004 she became an alternate at the state Democatic-Farmer- Labor caucus. She traveled 2 hours and stayed in a hotel for 3 days while attending the Minnesota state convention. For Zeonia, SELS was life-changing. She has inspired me to fitness by showing me that it’s never too late to try something new.”
Julie Schuster, another SELS personal trainer and IDEA member, shares the story of 90-year-old Erma Peterson. “When we started working with Erma she could hardly get out of her chair, she was so weak,” Schuster says. “She became strong enough to remain in her daughter’s home until 2 weeks before she died. Not only could she get out of her chair, but she also did dishes, folded laundry and took short walks outside. Her family confirmed that the program added immeasurable quality to her last 21/2 years of life.”
While support for SELS is still strong, Lynn says the funding has dwindled, which stymies efforts to grow the program. “More than anything, we would like to see the funding increase and the program expand to include other counties and state agencies,” she says. “At today’s prices, the average cost for a year of twice-weekly training for these clients is $8,000 or about $660 a month. A year of state-funded nursing-home care in this country averages $45,000 a year or $3,750 a month. It’s easy to see that if personal fitness training keeps a client out of a nursing home for just 2 months, it more than pays for an entire year’s worth of training services in savings to the state.”
In the meantime, Lynn encourages other fitness professionals to extend their educated and compassionate ideas to this niche market. “Find the missing piece and fill the need,” she says. “Start with your local legislator and tell him or her what you want to do. Find an advocate in your city council and keep talking. SELS is still a small nonprofit organization, but we make a big impact. Programs like this are ahead of the curve, so you have to be patient; but for the sake of these clients who would never receive such services, it is worth the effort.”