PT, exercise-science students pumped up about programs in senior communities

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Barbara Wagner, D.P.T., director of clinical education in the physical therapy program, and her students can easily rattle off a list of the physical benefits that come from the “Seniorcise” program The University of Scranton’s Physical Therapy Department has created and has run at multiple Scranton-area senior residential communities for 20 years.

Ask Michael Landram, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science, and his students majoring in Exercise Science and Sport about a similar exercise-based service-learning program they established at the Jewish Community Center on Jefferson Avenue, and they can do the same.

Increased flexibility, endurance and balance, greater upper-body strength and greater lower-body strength are just a few.

The senior citizens who’ve experienced these physical transformations also will list these benefits, but if you watch the videos their student-teachers put together to document their transformative experiences, a few common bonus themes emerge:

The programs are fun. They keep us busy. They keep us involved.

That’s what the trio of Mary Ann, Ruth and Ethel, residents of Lutherwood, a Diakon Lutheran Senior Housing Community overlooking Lake Scranton, say. They also note a plethora of intangible benefits they’ve received from their relationship with University students through Seniorcise.

The program is about “being with people, relaxing and leaving the worries off,” Ruth says. “If we were to do this in our apartments, we wouldn’t have as much fun. When you get to be our age and start losing friends and everything, you need someone to build you up, muscle- and brain-wise.”

That dual support is what physical-therapy student Kristina Zarra enjoys most about working with local senior citizens.

“It is fulfilling,” she says. “You really get a sense of the residents’ gratitude for your time and expertise.”

Physical therapy students have worked at Lutherwood as well as at Amos Towers on Jefferson Avenue; Geneva House, a Presbyterian community on Adams Avenue; and Webster Towers on North Webster Avenue. They’ve also worked with children at a nearby day-care center.

Dr. Wagner says the physical therapy students focus on basic exercise outcomes that aren’t always easy for the older population, outcomes such as strength, balance and ambulation, or the ability to walk farther and longer. They visit the local partner sites two times per week, with each group doing similar exercise activities but modifying the plans for the individuals involved.

Several of the seniors have been participating in the Seniorcise program for years and miss it when it’s not available.

“They love it and wish the students weren’t off for the summer,” Dr. Wagner, director of clinical education in the physical therapy program, says.

Sentiments are similar at the JCC, says Dr. Landram, who explains that the exercise program there involves assessment components intended to measure progress over time. When students first show up, they run a battery of tests with the seniors.

How well can a senior get out of a chair without using his arms? Can she walk across the room and return? Can he lift groceries or grandchildren? How about put the groceries away on shelves?

Then there are the step tests that measure flexibility, endurance and strength. All tests are age-appropriate.

“Depending on how they do, we put them into one of two training programs: upper-body-centric or lower-body-centric,” Dr. Landram says, explaining that both groups work on each area of the body but focus on just one.

“It’s very much like personal training in a lot of ways,” he says. “Students explain how the program will help, and they coach them.”

The JCC program requires graduated time commitments from the students: 10 hours in the sophomore year, 20 in the junior year and 30 in the senior year. The senior students, taking part in what Dr. Landram calls a “capstone experience,” make appointments with the senior citizens, and the programs become more complicated.

A major benefit of the overall program, he says, is that it deals with “proactive prevention,” helping seniors achieve successes before they become sick.

It also prepares students well for allied-health careers, he says, noting, that general population is aging.

“Somewhere around 10,000 people a day are turning 65,” Dr. Landram says, so “students will encounter this group pretty consistently going forward.”

Students are also excited to share their success stories from the program. Those stories are “just great,” Dr. Landram says, offering examples such as seniors who could not take the stairs when they first met the students and are “now getting in and out of subways on trips to New York.”

Because the seniors improve over time, results are tracked over time, he says, especially because the students cycle in and out.

“Every five weeks or so, we retest so we can say to seniors, ‘We can show you some numbers right here,’ ” said Dr. Landram.

Training levels also advance over time, Dr. Landram says, with the first level focusing on motor skills and the second on balance. With better balance, seniors are less likely to fall on the ice, for example.

Students who have been involved with the JCC program for multiple years can track their own progression as well as the progression of the seniors, with whom they often become close.

Maura McGowan, 22, of Scranton, an exercise-science undergrad who is now in the doctor of physical therapy class of 2019, says the program is “really beneficial to our schooling and our careers.”

“It was nice to see that every time we went to the JCC they were looking forward to seeing us,” she says. “They would tell us of their little progressions.”

The program differs from other service-learning opportunities, she says, because of its hands-on approach. “You definitely see more of an impact.”

Like so many of the physical therapy students who visit the various local senior centers, McGowan has found the greatest rewards in personal interactions and the relationships she developed at the JCC.