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October 24, 2002 Amazing greys share the wisdom of old age



by Hypatia Francis

Among the students in Pearl Crichton’s Sociology of Aging class on March 12 were 10 members of the seniors group Spice of Life. It was the fourth annual visit from the group, whom Crichton brings in to show her students how lively and wise the elderly can be.

After a laughter-filled exercise session, the class settled in for a question period, and the students received some unexpected answers. When they were asked if anyone had home care, 79-year-old Kathleen Russell burst out, “No! We do it on our own. That’s the point.”

When another student asked if any of the seniors had ever experienced ageism, Brian White, 80, surprised the class by saying, “I’ve had it exactly the opposite reaction.”

Spice of Life started as an offshoot of an exercise class, and reflects the growing numbers and more complex profile of the senior citizen. Canadians over the age of 50 now make up half the population. The older adult is healthier, has more disposable income and is better able to get around than ever before.

Gay Elliott works for Aristo-fit in Hudson, and started Spice of Life two years ago. Before long, she had her feisty group of women over 80 (the Old Spice Girls) performing exercise routines to loud applause at the opening ceremonies of the Canadian Fitness Professionals’ annual convention in Toronto. Then she added male members over 75 years old (the Over-Spiced Men).

In response to a student in Crichton’s class who asked what advice the seniors had for young people, 77-year-old Geoffrey Maund said that “firm friendships are essential.”

That bears out what Elliott has noted in a magazine article on her group. While they may be full of life, seniors have seen it all. “Most have suffered the loss of oved ones,” she reminded readers. “They have gone through the change that retirement brings, have a heart or blood-pressure condition, and are battling some chronic disease.”

When another student asked about what changes had taken place since the visiting seniors were young, Helen Zajchowski, 83, said, “One of the biggest changes is the opportunities that have opened up for women.”

These seniors are still making a contribution, and not only by bringing laughter and hope to audiences. Many are active volunteers in their community, through nursing home exercise programs, Meals on Wheels, and the Victorian Order of Nurses.

The two-hour class, filled with lively debate, went by quickly. Many students stayed behind to thank the visitors. Among them were sociology majors Elise Barakett and Lara Kwitko, both 20. They agreed that the class was one of the best of the semester.

“Most of us don’t usually get a chance to talk to older people,” Kwitko said.