Restoring Physical Confidence in an Older Adult
Legally blind, Joan needed to improve her strength and balance to maintain her independence.
Personal trainer: Mary Ann DeMello, MA, owner, Mary Ann’s Exercise
Location: Dennisport, Massachusetts
Introduction. Two years ago, Mary Ann DeMello sat in the kitchen of Joan, aged 85, discussing the possibility of training together. The two were introduced by Adelle, one of DeMello’s clients, who would often bring Joan home-cooked meals.
“Joan is very thin, and Adelle was trying to fatten her up!” says DeMello. “Adelle thought it would be a good idea for me to work with Joan, building her muscles and teaching her fall prevention exercises.”
Joan, who is considered legally blind, lived alone and hoped to stay that way. However, vision and strength deficits were inhibiting her ability to navigate her home, and she had developed a significant fear of falling.
“She was quite friendly and amiable,” notes the trainer. “Joan wasn’t keen on exercise, but realized she was getting frail and might need some strength building so she could remain in her home and be independent.”
Assessment. To gauge her new client’s physical capacity, DeMello simply observed how Joan moved. She noticed that Joan was cautious as she traveled through her home, using walls as guidance and grasping chairs to avoid falling. DeMello knew that strength and balance would be training priorities. Joan’s exercise experience was limited to walking—the former town-hall clerk and high-school secretary used to walk 2–3 miles to work each day—so the trainer also emphasized verbal interaction during the sessions.
“When developing her program, I had to keep things light. I kept up a running chatter about the weather, my husband (whom she’s crazy about!) and my cat,” DeMello says. “Joan has a Maine coon named Angel, and I have a Maine coon named Fraidy.”
Strength. “Our first session started with Joan seated on a straight chair and using the peddler to warm up her legs,” explains DeMello. “Then she got up and stood behind a chair to perform some balance exercises—standing up and down on her toes for 10 reps, standing on one leg for 10 seconds and switching to the other leg. She did standing lunges, right and left leg, for 10 reps, and squats. By then, Joan needed to sit down.”
At that point DeMello changed the focus to upper-body exercises such as stretching a resistance band in front of the chest and overhead. “I find many seniors have trouble reaching overhead for something on a shelf, for example, and lose their balance,” DeMello says.
Joan also completed seated leg abductions with a smaller resistance band wrapped around her ankles, straight-leg lifts to strengthen the abdominals, and elbow and wrist flexion and extension exercises using 1-pound dumbbells.
Connection. DeMello insists that a successful training program requires an understanding of the client physically, emotionally and mentally.
“I have learned through my experience with Joan to listen to my clients and, of course, to watch them as I assess their performance,” she says. “You may need to change to a heavier weight or band or complete fewer reps. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to listen to my client’s stories. Joan lost her husband, Phil, many years ago and misses him still.”
Learning about her client’s personal history helps Mary Ann to be more empathetic, which she believes makes her a better trainer. “Part of [clients’] physical well-being is [their] emotional well-being. [Learning about clients’ personal lives] helps you understand why clients might be crabby and not really into exercise. Once they get whatever is bothering them off their chests, they feel better and will work with you.”
Independence. “The most rewarding aspect of working with Joan is how much we have learned together and how much love and respect we have for one another,” DeMello adds.
Joan’s strength and balance have improved immensely, which allows her to move through her house with greater confidence and less fear of falling.
“From the moment [Mary Ann] walks in the door, she works her winning ways,” Joan grins. “My workout improves my strength, agility and balance. Her compassion and sense of humor leave me in such a positive mindset. Most important, [the training] enables me to stay in my home, which I am most thankful for.”