On Saturday, April 26, millions of people across the world will gather in at least 88 countries and perform tai chi at the same time. World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, recognized annually on the last Saturday in April, was established 15 years ago as a way to “bring people across racial, economic, religious, and geo-political boundaries, to join together for the purpose of health and healing.” Mobile’s version of the event will take place at Via Health, Fitness and Enrichment Center on Dauphin Street in Midtown Mobile.
I’ve been into tai chi for quite some time, beginning shortly after I fell in love with Patrick Swayze’s character in “Road House.” I’ve been hearing a lot about the event lately, and it got me pretty curious about Via. I had the pleasure of stopping by for a visit last week, and was really blown away by all the activities and services they offer to the community.
Via, which is operated by Senior Citizens Services, is an enormous multi-purpose facility designed to “promote a healthy, active and independent lifestyle among older adults.” Their affordable membership is open to adults 21 and older, and there are plenty of activities for younger folks, but they focus primarily on providing services and activities for senior citizens. They have grown to more than 700 members in recent years, ranging in age from 21 to 101, with over three-quarters being older adults.
I know better than to buy into certain stereotypes about seniors farting away their last years in a rocking chair. Because of some complicated family issues, I ended up spending part of my senior year of high school residing in an independent living facility for senior citizens.
I wasn’t technically allowed to live there, so I was basically a stowaway, creeping in with my face covered when I returned home after visiting hours, slowing my pace and perhaps hunching my back a bit to try to blend in with the precisely zero other residents sneaking in at 2 a.m. on a Friday night.
I remember frequently trying to convince my high school friends and the very, very occasional date that it was totally cool living at an “old folks’ home.” The truth is, it really was, and it turned out to be an incredibly enriching experience.
My neighbors on the second floor were awesome — well, except for that one unnecessarily ornery old gal — and they often went well out of their way to look out for me and conceal my presence from management. In the evenings, women would sometimes knock on my door offering a fresh baked pie, or perhaps a bowl of potato or apple salad. They were exceedingly kind to a lonely and displaced kid with no idea where she belonged.
The ladies taught me various crafts and the importance of cold cream, and how to tell an absolutely filthy joke while maintaining an impeccably ladylike demeanor. They even threatened to score a fake ID and smuggle me along on one of their party buses to the casinos.
The older gentlemen told me stories about the war and how they fell in love with their beloved late wives. They taught me about swing dancing, playing chess, ham radios and how to read a storm cloud. I learned about Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and how to square dance and bluff my way through a poker game. I learned so much in those months, and the one thing I’ll never forget is there need be nothing dull about the lives of senior citizens and they can be some of the biggest party animals in town.
Just the other day there was a story going around the ‘net about a Long Island man who sued a nursing home after finding a photo of his 85-year-old mother being “defiled” by a male stripper who performed at the facility. The nursing home’s defense? The elderly female residents specifically requested the sexy entertainment.
That story reminds me of a recently deceased relative of mine who, at the age of 90, still guzzled wine by the box and openly admitted she called the fire department when she wasn’t feeling well instead of going to the doctor because she enjoyed ogling the firemen while they checked her vitals.
I’m not sure if the seniors who hang out at Via are quite as frisky, although it would come as no surprise, but I do know they have plenty to keep them busy. In addition to their gymnasium featuring treadmills, ellipticals and weight machines, they offer numerous fitness classes including yoga, Pilates, boot camp, line dancing, clogging and tai chi. They also offer a Silver Sneakers program, which provides an all-inclusive low-impact workout that can be performed sitting or standing, by people at any fitness level.
Other activities include art classes, crafts, card games, billiards tournaments, meditation, intergenerational ballroom dancing and a woodshop. In addition to their adult daycare program, “Grandfriends,” the center has a bus providing home-to-center transportation for those who can’t drive, as well as home services providing light housekeeping and socialization to the homebound. And so much more!
While I was there I had the pleasure of meeting Fred Martin, who recently celebrated his 91st birthday. The native Mobilian told me he’s been coming to Via almost daily for 18 years and considers it the highlight of his day. Fred is known as the “puzzle king” of Via and while we chatted he was working on a 2,000-bit masterpiece.
According to executive director Dorothy Curry, Via receives just more than 20 percent of their funding from the city, and the rest comes from grants, donations, performance contracts and fundraisers. They rely strongly on volunteers to help with anything from answering phones to teaching classes or working fundraisers.
If you’re interested in supporting this wonderful community resource, call and ask how you can help with upcoming fundraisers including the annual Bowl for Via on May 6 and Via Bolt 5K in June.