Staying Active Beats the Blues for Latino Elders

Staying Active Beats the Blues for Latino Elders

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Photo: Seniors stretch in a fitness class sponsored by Detroit's Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development. (Martina Guzman/WDET)

DETROIT--We all know how important exercise is. Doctors say 20 minutes a day will make a big difference in your health and dramatically reduce the risk of a whole host of conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and maybe even dementia. But what happens when older adults can no longer drive to a gym or go for a simple walk.

Gabriela Boyd is a very busy senior, at age 75, is a living example how significant exercise and movement is for metropolitan Detroit’s aging population.

As active as she’s ever been, Boyd works for a neighborhood nonprofit, teaches English as a second language to Latinas in Southwest Detroit and gives nutrition classes.

Fighting Isolation

Boyd emphasized that staying busy helps her fight feelings of isolation. "The most important thing is to have a goal in life so, as a senior, if you don’t feel that you are necessary, that you are important, that you can contribute to the community--at that moment you start dying. That’s why I keep myself busy."

But not all seniors are like Boyd. Many can’t drive anymore, can’t accomplish simple tasks around the house or do things they once loved like gardening. Boyd said a lack of mobility strips away elders’ independence and can have a deep psychological impact on people in her age group.

“They feel that they are stuck, they feel useless, they feel incompetent. So that is a very terrible thing,” Boyd explained, adding, “It’s one of the main things that keeps them isolated. This is the worst thing that can happen to you.”

Lack of mobility is one of the key factors in isolation within the aging population. Seclusion puts older adults at greater risk for developing depression. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 65-plus population in the United States has one of the highest suicide rate of any age group, more than 15 per 100,000 people of that age.

But if staying active can be a challenge for young people, it’s especially challenging if you’re older, have body aches or a debilitating illnesses. Cathy Lysack is the deputy director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University. She’s currently writing a book about aging and mobility.
She noted, “Most older adults think, ‘Oh, I’m too weak, it’s bad for me.’ The opposite is true--even women with significant arthritis will benefit with less fatigue and less pain if they exercise.”

Lysack said that failing to exercise or avoiding exercise not only affects seniors physically, it also affects their ability to think clearly or rationally.

“You may not be able to drive a car; it’s a complex skill,” she continued. “And when that happens your social environment shrinks very quickly. If you don’t have the resources and people to offset that, you’re at risk for isolation socially and that’s bad for older people.”

Seniors Keep Moving in Mexicantown

The Detroit organization Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development created fitness classes tailored to the needs of the aging community. Their goal is to keep seniors moving.

On a recent Monday afternoon at the Welcome Center in Detroit’s Mexicantown, dozens of seniors sat in front of folding chairs. They walked in place to the beat of the music, stretching and shaking their hands in the air.

Fitness instructor Lyndy Tallessen, 60, led the group--"Take a deep breath...hands out front...make a fist....”

Tallessen has been senior teaching the class for more than a year. She said her method isn’t designed to train them for the Senior Olympics, but to keep them mobile.

“It helps them do everyday activities, just moving around it’s important for their balance, their strength, agility,” she said.

Tallessen added that in the year she’s been teaching the class, she’s noticed a dramatic difference in some of the seniors: “There is one particular participant. When she first came in, she was on a rolling walker. She had to stop to take a breath after every step. Now she’s more mobile she can move."

She stressed that she loves seeing seniors moving, but most important she loves seeing them break the cycle of isolation by becoming part of a community through exercise.

Tallessen went on, “It’s really good for them because they get out, and they are among people. The camaraderie among people helps their mind.”

By 2030, one-third of the U.S. adult population will be of retirement age. As we get use to the fact that we are living longer, we are taking steps to stay active, sharp and engaged. After all, Lysack reminds us that we are only okay with aging, as long as were in good health.

Martina Guzman produced this article for WDET in Detroit through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows Program, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.