A special exercise leader has seniors
Tracy B. Cieniewicz
Every day except Sunday, residents at Sierra Springs Retirement/Assisted Living Community in Hartselle follow colorful signs leading to a brightly-lit common area where exercise class is held at 10 a.m.
Exercise leader and resident Donna Hardin, 52, better known to most as "Donnie," has already prepared the room for the mid-morning activities. Straight-back chairs are spread evenly around the room, each with a lightweight exercise pole and bag containing two soft rubber balls situated at its feet.
As residents file in and claim a seat, rays beam through the skylights to spotlight those who have played hooky.
Unlike fancy gyms, Donnie's exercise class is not dependent on loud music, expensive equipment, or leotard-laden instructors. Sierra Springs Administrator Terri Norwood said Donnie doesn't need such gimmicks to get residents to participate in her exercise class.
"Yoga and other classes have failed here in the past," Norwood said. "Donnie's class, however, is a hit. In fact, I have to schedule other activities and events around the class. Donnie and the residents both make sure that they don't miss their daily exercise."
Norwood believes Donnie's class owes its success to the fact that the participants relate well to their exercise leader.
A resident since Sierra Springs opened its doors in June 2001, Donnie has been in charge of the exercise class since March 2002.
"I have to do my exercises anyway," Donnie said. "Someone said I might as well teach the class, so now I do."
Donnie must do her daily exercises as a part of a continual recovery process stemming from an accident a decade ago that left her hospitalized for nearly a year. The accident also resulted in a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that affected Donnie's short-term memory and caused severe physical limitations.
Therapists told Donnie's family she would most likely be wheelchair-bound and to make handicap-accessible accommodations to their homes. Those accommodations were never made. The family said they just did not see Donnie's long-term recovery goal as sitting in a wheelchair.
"When the therapist brought me a walker, I said, 'That's not for me,'" Donnie said. "It has been hard work trying to get my legs to move again, but I've done it. I never would have believed it before the accident, but you can re-learn things no matter how hard they may seem."
Donnie has not only re-learned to walk, but has also learned how to write with her left hand. An injury to her right shoulder sustained in the accident rendered the hand of little use.
"But I exercise, paint, and crochet just fine," Donnie said.
Like Donnie, participants in the exercise class also have limitations. The one-hour class concentrates on low-impact breathing, stretching, balance, dexterity, and mobility exercises Donnie learned while rehabilitating from the accident.
But these residents know low-impact does not mean the routine is easy.
Some shed extra layers of clothing. Some stop for a drink of bottled-water. Some take a well-deserved break.
"You made it just in time for your favorite thing," Donnie teases a late-comer. "Now let's get ready for the tummy-tucker." Everyone giggles and sighs in preparation.
Participants know each exercise has 12 repetitions, but today's hand exercises with the rubber balls have been increased to 15. Donnie said she made the change because she thought it might help one particular resident.
"I noticed she was having trouble holding her coffee cup," Donnie said. "I think increasing the ball exercises will help to strengthen her hands and give them some dexterity."
Norwood said it is not unusual for Donnie to make such an observation.
"Donnie is a very caring person by nature," Norwood said. "She truly wants to help others."
After a few minutes of cool-down exercises, Donnie tells everyone to get ready to go on a little journey. Without further instruction, the participants rise from their chairs. The "little journey" Donnie speaks of is a brisk walk through the winding halls of Sierra Springs.
"We get faster every day," Donnie says with a grin.