To a medley of uplifting dance music from KC and the Sunshine Band to the Village People’s “YMCA,” more than 20 older adults pedaled for half an hour on the second floor of Villa Hermosa, a senior living community in Tucson on last week.
In a 10-day Tour-de-France inspired race, residents 80 years old and older participated alongside the facilities staffers in a friendly competition in the first in-person, community-wide event since before the pandemic.
Inspired by the community participation of Tour de Tucson and with the small window when COVID-19 regulations loosened, Zest Director Ashley Seeber created Tour de Zest, hoping to bring the community together after months of quarantine.
Seeber strapped on a GoPro and cycled around the Loop. She then cut the video into 30 minute increments to display on a projector that the residents could then pedal along to while listening to some music.
“They loved it. Some of them have ridden in the Tour de Tucson. Some of them have kids that ride in the tour, so they were just super happy to be a part of what was going on outside the walls,” said Seeber.
Since the 1980s, Rosemary Ifflander, 88, has loved to cycle, but had to give it up nine years ago. When Ifflander heard about Tour de Zest, last year she did not hesitate to sign up.
“I said, well that’s great, because we could get people out of their rooms, so that they could do exercise. It’s a lot of fun,” said Ifflander.
Last time, Mary Davis, 91, did not get to participate, but joined this year. Davis joined before she knew about the friendly competition among the Senior Resource Group’s sister communities. However, like Ifflander, Davis is prepared to win.
“Instead of ‘Fight, fight!’ it’s ‘Ride, ride, ride!’” said Davis, as she warmed up before the start of the group cycling event.
On Tuesday, before the start of the class, Seeber told participating residents they had cycled 1,356 miles while the second leading competitor had around 800. The race was scheduled to end on July 5 with a finish line party.
This year, Tour de Zest expanded to include friendly competition with other communities and also allowed staff to participate as well. Seeber said the Zest program emphasizes “intergenerational activities” and it was especially important during the height of the pandemic when the communities limited access.
“Especially with COVID which put a limit on having kids come in and visit, one of the best ways to do that is we have a younger staff, obviously we’ve got dining room [staff], my Zest assistants, the caregivers,” said Seeber. A resident told her Tuesday morning that her cleaning lady wore a Tour de Zest shirt. “I was just so excited that the staff is getting into this, how we are. So the residents see it, they recognize it and it gives them team camaraderie, outside of just the resident population.”
Prior to the pandemic, older adults had struggled with isolation and the pandemic only exacerbated the issue with people being unable to see their family or friends, according to Pima Council on Aging CEO Mark Clark.
“We’ve been very concerned about isolation and the loneliness that accompanies it,” said Clark. “Some people can live very, very good lives, isolated–I’m less likely to be one of those people–but it’s the loneliness that really has that dramatically negative health impact.”
Early on Clark said they encouraged people to be neighborly, while keeping in mind COVID-19 mitigation strategies, like masking and social distancing.
“In the neighborhood I live in, which is of mixed-age families, older adults like me, I saw more of my neighbors out on the street in front of my house than I had ever seen before, and know more of them,” said Clark. “I think being neighborly was so important and I think people were increasingly neighborly.”
However, neighborly services became difficult to provide with pandemic restrictions. Southern Arizona Senior Pride, an organization providing support services for LGBTQ+ older adults, had to shift their Community Cares program from visits and calls to only phone calls last March, said Executive Director Lavina Tomer.
“It was key to keeping people company, stimulated, know that somebody cared about them, that Senior Pride really worked hard to keep our program operating throughout the whole time, and continues to do that,” said Tomer.
The community cares program also provides services to LGBTQ+ older adults in assisted or independent living, beyond those who are homebound, as they face greater isolation due to a fear of stigmatization because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Even though they are living in a situation where they get their needs met–if they need to go to the doctor, they’ll get a ride or they get their food and all of that–we know that LGBT older adults are isolated, even in those situations,” said Tomer. “They might have company or they eat with other people, but they don’t always come out. Actually what we know is that some people will go back in the closet, in order to survive those environments and not have people be hostile or negligent or discriminate against them.”
Over the past month, Senior Pride has offered in-person visits, but both the volunteer and recipients must be vaccinated, according to co-coordinator of the Community Cares program Leanna Crosby and one of the volunteers performing in-person visits.
While they increased the number of calls made over the past year, Crosby admitted that in-person visits helped them provide better care for their recipients and provided what a phone call can sometimes lack: warmth.
“You can pick up those cues that you would never get over a phone. Also we sometimes pick up on the fact that they need some resources, not only a walker or wheelchair, which we can certainly give them the resources to call,” said Crosby. “The social in-person interaction is so much more warm than a phone call.”
Senior Pride also held their first in-person event at Himmel park last month and plan to hold another outdoor event at the end of July.
Seeber believes body activities and socialization helps combat “cognitive decline” and hopes to continue encouraging those activities “to keep everyone healthy, happy and living their lives better, longer.”
A first-time participant of Tour de Zest, 102-year-old resident, Ruth C. Goodman embodies this message.
“I think people should know they don’t want to have to stop doing things when they’re a certain age,” said Goodman. “Just keep going, so that you feel you’re part of the community.”
Goodman tries to stay as active as possible and feels inspired by the community and people around her.
“I think the inspiration you get from the people that work with you is very important. They enjoy what they’re doing and they get a thrill, like we do,” said Goodman. “I am 102 years old and I’ve seen many things and I’ve been involved with many things, including people with handicaps. My daughter has Down Syndrome and learned to read and write and do things that they said they’d never do, but with the right inspiration and the right sizes, they get to do it. That’s my message: you don’t get anywhere if you don’t try.”
To the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Goodman and other staff and residents pedaled the last minutes of their group cycling event, hoping to rack up those miles to take home the gold.