A haven for aging enthusiasts, the Center for Successful Aging at California State University, Fullerton has adopted a holistic approach to growing old that embraces the full spectrum of human experience: mind, body and spirit.
The direct beneficiaries of this effort each year are 150 older adult residents from Orange county just south of Los Angeles who take movement classes on campus ranging from exercise to yoga and fall prevention.
Although the center sports a workout facility that rivals the finest gyms, perhaps more impressive is its position as a hub for teaching, aging research, and hands-on training for students in gero-kinesiology – the movement of older adults.
“I’m not aware of any other centers in the country that use a program such as this as professional preparation,” says Debbie Rose, the center’s vibrant and internationally-recognized aging expert.
Mental stimulation is provided by the university’s alliance with OLLI – the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute – which offers dozens of programs spanning foreign languages, Tai Chi, fiction writing, musical instruments, a New Yorker discussion group, and “50 Ways to Feel Thin, Gorgeous and Happy.”
Rose says aging studies are becoming more popular across the university.
“More of our interdisciplinary programs are adding a focus on aging issues,” she says.
Aging research is overseen by the university’s Ruby Gerontology Center, which includes its Institute of Gerontology – the study of aging.
“Good job Terry!” exclaims Rose to a frail senior wearing a neck brace in a morning balance and mobility class – one of the center’s growing number of courses targeting the unique needs of older adults.
Rose is surrounded by a phalanx of blue-shirted student interns who set up an obstacle course for a handful of seniors inside the small classroom that includes a “high five” slap for station number five. All are unfailingly positive and polite in an atmosphere that is both friendly and encouraging.
“Good job, everyone,” applauds Rose, wrapping up the class. “I saw some very good decision-making out there.”
The center adopts a Whole-Person Wellness approach to aging, inspiring older adults with its “six pillars” of health: emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual, social and vocational.
Critical to the center’s success is exercise – a springboard for the other pillars, most notably socialization.
“For some of those individuals, this is the only reason they leave their home,” says Rose.
Inside the spacious gym, speakers blast Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and other upbeat workout tunes that help 77 year-old Eula Thomas speed impressively on the elliptical machine.
“You meet great, like-minded people you wouldn’t have met otherwise,” smiles Thomas, a retired sixth-grade teacher who has seen the center explode in her 13 years there.
“I find I have to keep moving every day in order for osteoarthritis not to take hold,” she adds inside the spacious facility that is also used for student classes and an employee wellness initiative.
Judy Aprile, program coordinator at the center, says effective exercise programs need to be customized for older adults. The complaint from seniors is that outside instructors push them too hard: “They thought I was 20,” is a common refrain.
“Not everyone is suited to working with older adults,” says Aprile, who received her master’s in gerontology from the university. “If one doesn’t really enjoy that population then it’s going to show.”
“It’s so much better than going to a gym,” agrees Judith Anderson, formerly executive vice president at the Fullerton campus. “You know when you have a question, that person didn’t have just a weekend certification.”
Another benefit of the center is its natural inter-generational mix – a growing trend that pairs wise elders with vibrant youth.
“I like making contact with the interns,” says Loren Duffy, 93, who started attending the center when he was 75. “It keeps me young. It keeps me going. I don’t think how old I am.”
“I love being around these youthful kids, and several of them are my Facebook friends,” smiles Glen Simar, 63, who has been exercising at the center every weekday for four years.
While the older adults learn about exercise from their instructors, the learning process is shared. Simar motions toward his student instructor Erin Blanchard, who is teaching her final class before graduation.
“She has a whole lot more confidence and leadership abilities than she had (when she started),” says Simar.
The center has expanded its movement classes to target the unique needs of older adults. Fit 4 Life focuses on exercise, while two balance classes and the center’s trademark FallProof program help seniors maintain agility to avoid debilitating and expensive falls — the number one cause of injuries and death for seniors nationwide.
The center offers yoga as well as a Health Promotion class that focuses on holistic living, including nutrition, brain games and spirituality.
Aprile says fitness classes have evolved since the center’s inception in 1998.
“Out of the 90 minutes that used to be purely exercise, we’re now pulling in different parts of wellness,” she says.
Student interns admit they often had outdated perceptions of older adults as tired and boring – even unproductive – members of society.
“As soon as I started interacting with these people and let my guard down, I didn’t see them as older adults,” says intern Max Tormohlen, who recently completed his undergraduate degree. “I saw them as people.”
While in high school, intern Skyler Winston watched his robust grandfather get sick, shrivel to under 150 pounds, and die. Winston then decided to commit his life to helping older adults stay healthy.
“I don’t want to see my dad go through that,” he says.
Tormohlen has traveled a similar route, seeing his grandfather die of lung disease, then watching the emotional toll it took on his grandmother.
“It was like a landslide,” he says. “Everything came down on her. Seeing that tears me up inside.”
Now graduating, Winston says he will probably return to get his master’s degree in gero-kinesology and receive his FallProof certification.
Fullerton offers both an undergraduate degree in kinesiology with an emphasis in gerontology, along with a master’s program in gero-kinesiology.
For kinesiology students interested in sports medicine or physical therapy, however, working with older adults is rarely a first career choice.
When addressing the university’s “Introduction to Kinesiology” class, Winston says perhaps one in 80 students will show an interest in working with older adults.
Yet for students interns who do volunteer at the center, their eyes often open wide with admiration for their elders.
“A lot of our students will move to gero-kinesiology after having an experience at the center,” says Rose, adding that nine out of 10 students who volunteer decide to work with seniors. “The best way to remove ageist tendencies is to get people involved with older adults.”
Student interns, who work outside the university at long-term care facilities, see first hand how older adults get warehoused and depressed.
“I don’t know why it has to be that way,” they tell Rose.
The center frequently hosts visitors nationally and internationally to study the inner workings of the center.
An international leader in aging and fall prevention, Rose first developed a balance test that is still widely used to assess older adults.
“I want to assess changes in their balance before they happen,” she says.
For Rose, the Center for Successful Aging keeps older adults vibrant, happy and productive.
“We want to be known as more than just a fitness center.”