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Silver Linings: Tai chi gains senior devotees

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 12. 2017 8:34PM
Bob Hanavan of Goffstown takes a tai chi class at the Goffstown Allard Center YMCA last week. Tai chi is considered an excellent form of exercise for seniors. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

In 2014, Marcia Wyman of Concord was focused on two things: teaching Tai Chi and spending her retirement competing at the national level in archery. She then suffered a stroke. Her left side was paralyzed and she could no longer hold a bow and arrow.

When she walked, she would take a step forward with her right foot and then drag her left side forward to get where she was going. She said she was depressed and retreated into her home.

“My whole world dissolved,” the 65-year-old said.

Her friend Eugene Gaudreau of Oriental Healing Arts Association in Plaistow encouraged her to get back into tai chi. He told her the graceful, circular movements would restore mobility in her left side, retrain her brain to move instinctively, and regrow nerves that would help her recover.

“He told me ‘you do tai chi and you will get better.’ So I said ‘show me,’” she recalled. “And he did.”

Six months later she was back at the front of a classroom teaching others tai chi. Two years later, she feels like she is in full swing again. Today, her paralysis is mostly cured, she said.

Tai Chi is activity that is promoted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for seniors. It promotes the ancient Chinese martial art as a way to help seniors retrain their bodies and build better balance to avoid one of the most common, life-changing, and expensive issues facing seniors today — falling down.

According to the CDC, one in every four people over the age of 65 will suffer at least one fall that they will tell their doctor about. Having one fall increases the likelihood a senior will fall again. The CDC estimates that direct medical costs for fall injuries exceeds $31 billion annually.

Fear of falling is one of the reasons that 68-year-old Susan Melanson signed up for a class at the Goffstown YMCA. She fell a few years ago and broke three bones in her leg. Barbara Child, 81, of Manchester has half a right foot and balance is already an issue.

Both women have been in the class for about five months and said they are seeing a difference. Melanson said she used to reach for the railings when climbing stairs, but now feels confident enough to walk straight up the middle.

Tai chi is also easy for seniors to do, Gaudreau said. It’s low impact and the rolling motions are easy on the joints. The shifting of weight back and forth and the movements are repetitive and meditative.

Seniors stop thinking about balance because tai chi has taught them to do it instinctively. He points to research showing that the chance of a senior falling is reduced by 50 percent if they learn tai chi.

But it’s not just about balance. The CDC said tai chi has been proven to reduce bone loss in menopausal women, improve lower body and leg strength, help with arthritis pain, reduces stress and blood pressure, and enhances mental capacity.

It’s also been shown to help people with Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and dementia.

Donna Brown has ataxia, a condition that affects the nervous system and causes coordination problems with movement and balance. At the YMCA class in Goffstown, she surrounds herself with chairs because she falls from time to time. She said tai chi has helped her with balance.

“Things happen more naturally now,” she said. “I am getting a little better. And it’s really relaxing.”

Charlie Stepanek, 79, of Concord, has been taking Wyman’s class for three years. He said he took it to help with his balance, but found it has also improved his eye muscles and improved his sight.

“It works. It really works,” he said.

Health NH People