Recently I took on teaching yoga to seniors in nursing homes. Initially I thought it would something nice to do, and was happy to pick up a few more teaching gigs. It’s quickly become much more than that.

The classes are small, ranging from 2 to 15 participants aged 75 to 97. One of my yogis is a beautiful woman (we’ll call her Sheila – not her real name). Sheila is 96 years young and always has impeccable makeup and carefully selected outfits – she wears a lot of matching two piece pant suits in pastel colours and the same button-up printed shirts my grandmother used to be fond of. Despite being 96 and wheelchair bound, Sheila is the heart of the class. She entices and coerces her peers into the yoga circle and tells them to stretch higher, move more – don’t be so damn lazy! It might sound like she’s a bit bossy, but Sheila is an absolute gem of a woman with a heart of gold. Her life story – from what I know of it – sounds like she is a total pioneer. It’s an honour to know her and be approved of by her (as long as I “work a bit harder and reach farther – you’re still young, dammit!”).

In another care facility, the day after I see Sheila, there’s another woman, Lucy (also not her real name), aged 97. In an environment where people are often frustrated by the changes in life that brought them to the home, Lucy has a beautiful sense of acceptance and hope for the future. She was brought into care 12 months ago after having a health scare and wasn’t even allowed to return to her house before entering care permanently. That’s a concept I can’t imagine for myself and her grace is humbling. Similar to Sheila, Lucy is the driving force behind morning yoga, recruiting other residents and friends to join in, and makes sure everyone gets back to their rooms alright following yoga. The first day I met Lucy I had the group doing leg exercises in what I call “dance steps” (everything we do is based from a sitting position). Lucy turned to me, an apologetic look on her face and said “I’m so sorry this hip doesn’t go as high as the other one. I’ve got a touch of arthritis.” High expectations seem to be a common theme amongst the longest-living and healthiest residents.

Following seeing Lucy I head downstairs and work with residents who have progressed in dementia. I have to say that initially I was intimidated by this ward, and unsure of how I would connect and motivate this group, but I really had no reason to worry. Dementia patients have good days and some less-good days, but everyone loves enthusiasm and a smile. Another perk is that I get complimented on the same “new” outfit every week.

I’ve found little keys to working with these amazing people. The use of story and imagination is a wonderful thing and we’ve started to weave a good yarn in with our exercise. We make up adventures  as we lift our feet and knees, making broad strokes with our hands like we’re clearing bush and walking through a jungle. Sometimes we have to climb trees and hold on for dear life when a storm comes. (Last week when we were in a tornado one of the residents cried out that she could see a cow that had been picked up by the wind and was sailing across the middle of the room!) Eventually we always reach a sunny beach and go for a swim, doing backstroke from our chairs, feeling the sun on our faces. Sometimes the Beach Boys are even there and we have a little dance.

It’s a lot of fun, and not in that saintly, not-actually-fun-but-it-sounds-good kind of way. Maybe having these great connections to older people is normal for those who grew up closer to their grandparents, but for me it’s something special and I’m really grateful.  I feel like they’re teaching me how to age, and do it with class.