Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and back pain that limited her movement, Roberta Heinz found relief at an aquatic wellness class at Providence Medford Medical Center.

Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and back pain that limited her movement, Roberta Heinz found relief at an aquatic wellness class at Providence Medford Medical Center.

"I can work in the yard and tie my shoes," said the 68-year-old Central Point resident. "It doesn't sound like much, but I'm living and I couldn't before."

This week, she and 133 other participants in Providence's aquatics classes received notice that the hospital will discontinue the community classes Friday in the face of the current economic decline.

"We are saddened that the aquatics-wellness program is ending," said Providence spokeswoman Lauren Van Sickle. "But there are six other pools that offer cheaper classes."

A letter sent to class participants explained that, in light of a continuing financial crunch, Providence had assessed its offerings to determine which were core programs and which could be offered better elsewhere in the community.

Van Sickle said that Providence has seen a growing need for individual therapy offered at the pool and the changes would enable the hospital to respond to that need.

She noted that the actual cost savings — stemming from reduced maintenance needed with less intensive use of the pool — would be minimal. However, hospital officials tried to reach a balance between its mission and what else was available in the community.

Providence sent its aquatics-class participants a list of six other programs: both Ashland and Medford YMCAs, Cascade Community Pool, Superior Athletic, OZ Fitness and Waterford Heath and Fitness at Three Fountains.

Mimi Henley, a 60-year-old Medford resident who found the Providence pool perfect for her arthritis and fibromyalgia, doesn't think any of those will suit her needs.

She said she took aqua-aerobics at Superior, where the water temperature reportedly hovers between 81 and 83 degrees, a few years ago, but it left her cold and achy. She tried Waterford, where the temperature is reportedly 86, but switched to Providence four years ago when she heard the water there was even warmer, generally around 90.

"The others are too cold," Henley said. "This is a therapy pool and the classes were like therapy without the individual attention."

Ashland YMCA's aquatics director Melissa Maddox, who used to work at the Providence pool, said that general-use pools are kept in the mid-80s to accommodate many people and purposes. Lap pools generally are heated to around 80 degrees, and pools for therapy and low-impact exercise are kept around 90 or even warmer.

"We try to meet a variety of needs," she said of the Y's roughly 86-degree, saline pool, which sometimes garners complaints from both overheated lap swimmers and shivering patients of Ashland Community Hospital's therapy program.

While Maddox is sorry to hear that Providence's program, which catered to the valley's growing senior population, is ending, she said qualified instructors anywhere can offer classes suited to specific limitations or diagnoses. A change of swimwear or the addition of a polyester T-shirt can help retain warmth when working out in a cooler pool, she added.

Fans of warm-water workouts do have another option not noted in the list Providence provided.

Medford Parks and Recreation offers aqua-aerobics in a 93-degree therapy pool at Medford Sports Injury and Therapy Center on Barnett Road, and the clinic sometimes provides private lessons, too, said Kristin Zerkel, its director of aquatic programs. She said the therapy center has gotten lots of calls since Providence announced it was ending its popular program.

Zerkel, who has worked as a life guard and swimming teacher, has taught water aerobics for about a year and said she is willing to learn from her students and the therapists in the office. Classes are small, generally about five people, so she can provide individualized attention, she said.

"I want them to get what they want," she said.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail