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Grant boosts tai chi options

Six months ago I wrote a column that began something like this: "I've seen them many times. Perhaps you have too "¦ elderly persons with changes in posture and movement. They usually walk very slowly with their heads out in front of the rest of their bodies. They take short, shuffling steps, occasionally swaying from side to side. Falls are highly likely because balance is compromised. And falls lead to fractures, pain, immobility — and dependency."

I told you in that previous column I thought there was a way to avoid such circumstances based on studies done at the Oregon Research Institute. And I issued an invitation to aging readers to participate in tai chi (for better balance) classes.

The response was overwhelming; I have never seen anything quite like it.

Within days, hundreds of individuals who were over 60 wanted to enroll in a 12-week series of classes (twice weekly, one-hour sessions, with the expectation for 30 minutes of "home practice"). I got some calls where people didn't even start the conversation with their names, they just wanted to make the "age cut." My favorite was, "Hello, I'm 93 years old and I want to take tai chi."

It made me even more admiring than I already am about the thoughtful resilience of aging peers.

Since last August, under a grant from the Administration on Aging, more than 20 sites in our community have offered classes attended by 250 people over age 60. In collaboration with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments' Senior and Disability Services, the first 12-week series were available without cost (the grant paid the instructors). Those instructors, by the way, comprise a highly talented pool of tai chi experts trained in the Oregon Research Institute's 8-form tai chi, as well as other forms.

Even those participants in the tai chi classes who had difficulty attending all the sessions, and were less than diligent about home practice, tell me they benefited. And it wasn't just improvements in strength, balance and flexibility. It wasn't simply improved posture or more graceful movements; it seems to be wrapped up in their feeling "all-over better" and being more able to control whatever life might bring.

The classes are ongoing. Four churches responded to the original invitation and established classes on-site. Three of those four churches are continuing to hold the series, offering it a second time, open to members and the community at large. In fact, almost 30 percent of the original sites are continuing classes with participants paying a fee or donation to the instructor.

If you haven't yet been involved, but you would like to give it a try, see the list of local Tai Chi classes mentioned in Buffy Pollock's article on this page, or in the ad on page 2C. You'll find details about Tai Chi classes being offered, with information about whom to call. Most of the classes will require a small fee or donation, but they're worth it. Think of it as an opportunity to move through the ages straighter and stronger.

It's a good thing we've started.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.