A few minutes before 10:00 a.m., we arrive at our community library, greeting each other with smiles, hugs, or pats on the back. We’re talkative and sometimes loud – not because we’re young and boisterous, but because we’re old with compromised hearing. Instead of fashion workout wear, we sport street clothes.
We’re the Bone Builders, a group of seniors who look forward to our time together the way we used to anticipate recess after sitting for hours in stuffy elementary school classrooms seven or eight decades ago. We range from 70-something to 90-something. Some come to class with a cane, others with a limp. And while the glass may appear half empty from the outside, to us, trading lively banter and joined in camaraderie, it seems half full.
Bone Builders originated from Tufts University’s Strong Living Program, designed to increase bone density and reverse the effects of osteoporosis. Our class is one of seventeen where seniors in Rockingham County, New Hampshire meet to build flexibility, balance, and strength. Exercises can be done both standing and sitting; dumbbells and leg weights are core features. Yet volunteer class leaders often get creative with warm-up and cool-down activities.
In our class, we incorporate everything from Greek folk dancing to ‘the flamingo’ – balancing Karate Kid style on one leg for one minute. Enter the good-hearted ribbing and socializing. “Hey, Pete, is that really water in your bottle today?” Or, “are you sure that’s just coffee in that cup?” ‘Jack,’ a Vietnam veteran and class jester, snaps uproarious jokes, challenging us to stay balanced on one leg without tipping over from laughter. Other times, we class leaders lose count of exercise repetitions, prompting humorous questions about our mental capacity.
Participants are encouraged to attend classes twice a week for at least six months to see results. My idea of results has certainly expanded. While building bones and developing our physical selves, we’re really building powerful social and emotional bonds.
When one of us has surgery to replace an arthritic knee or hip, the class sends cards, emails, and texts of support. ‘Julie,’ a class leader and de facto class secretary, tracks members’ health status and organizes group responses. For instance, she brings cards for us to write messages of encouragement to our recuperating friends. Before the holidays, we dialed an ailing classmate, put the phone on speaker and sang him carols. (We’re pretty sure his laughter was just because he was happy to hear from us … )
When ‘Jack’ returns, recovered from one of his many health challenges, he’s greeted like the star quarterback of a state championship team at his 50-year high school reunion. ‘Joan,’ vibrant in her mid-80’s, got a hero’s welcome after returning from surgery.
Sometimes, despite the best intentions though, illness and old age conspire to prevent one of us from returning to full class participation. Nonetheless, graduates of our senior class often return just to visit, say hello, and catch up with one another. Here, in these mini class reunions, the sense of community among classmates reveals itself as the most meaningful benefit of Bone Builders.
When I joined the program three years ago, first as a participant and later a class leader, I hoped the classes would help ease my difficult transition from life-long employment to retirement. Just something to fill up my free time. Little did I know I’d receive more than I could ever give, that while gaining strength and balance, I was gaining community and new family.
When I was in high school, I thought we had a monopoly on fun and cool friends. Try telling that to my Bone Builders class!
By Byron Petrakis, RSVP Bone Builder Leader