More than a decade ago, Stephanie Davis suddenly found herself struggling with everyday activities, including walking up stairs. Even talking could trigger shortness of breath and a coughing fit. Tests by specialists revealed that she had sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s organs—most commonly the lungs. Though the incurable disease already had caused some permanent damage to her lungs, treatment over time allowed her to resume more of her daily routine.
“Most days, the elephant was no longer sitting on my chest,” Davis says.
Last year, however, routine monitoring tests revealed that her lung capacity had fallen to 20 percent below normal. She knew something had to be done.
In August, Davis enrolled in Senior Yoga sessions, which are offered twice monthly by Sentara Martha Jefferson—part of the hospital’s efforts to provide education and services targeted to older adults. Led by a certified yoga instructor, the classes allow participants to practice gentle yoga poses while sitting on a chair or standing and using a chair for support. The yoga instructor focuses on breathing exercises, stretching and flexibility, and mind-calming techniques. Participants do not need to have prior yoga experience to join the class.
After a couple of months of participating in the yoga sessions, Davis underwent follow-up pulmonary function testing. Her lung capacity had improved back to the normal range. Davis also has noticed that the yoga exercises have stabilized her core muscles.
“I enrolled in the yoga classes to ensure that my breathing function did not suffer any further decline,” says Davis, who is retired and living in Lake Monticello. “The great news is, I had measurable improvement in my lung capacity, and that was made possible through chair yoga. It was a wonderful thing to realize that doing even little bits of something like chair yoga could make a significant difference in my well-being and everyday function.”
The yoga sessions are coordinated by Jessica Cooper, RN, who transitioned to her role as Sentara Martha Jefferson’s first senior services navigator last year. Cooper is responsible for evaluating the needs of and coordinating services for seniors and their caregivers. She also guides older patients and their families through the healthcare system and points them to resources that will allow them to continue the activities they enjoy for as long as possible.
“I’m building a program from the ground up to help connect the dots in health care for seniors in our community,” Cooper says.
A Growing Demographic
Today, people 65 and older make up nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population. By 2060, however, the number of Americans over 65 is projected to more than double. The rapid growth of this demographic group will result in significant challenges, as their need for healthcare services increases dramatically.
Older adults have higher incidences of chronic disease, injury and reliance on caregivers. As they turn 65, seniors also begin to retire and transition to Medicare. Cooper’s goals include promoting healthy eating for seniors, providing resources for seniors and their caregivers, facilitating navigation of the healthcare system, overcoming barriers to care, and helping to ease the burden on caregivers.
“Knowing that a greater influx of seniors is expected in the healthcare system, Sentara Martha Jefferson wanted to put in place the extra level of care this group will need,” Cooper says. “We’re continuing our work of trying to determine the needs of this population and how we can best support their efforts to lead healthy lives.”
Identifying Needs, Finding Solutions
Cooper started her work by conducting a needs assessment survey through some of the high-volume senior services in the community, such as the Charlottesville Senior Center, JABA (Jefferson Area Board of Aging) and Charlottesville PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly). She asked seniors and their caregivers what services and activities these organizations provided and what else they felt was needed.
Cooper launched the Senior Yoga program, for example, because seniors said they wanted more exercise options geared specifically toward them. This year, Cooper also is initiating Ageless Grace, a faster-paced exercise program for older adults.
“Our mission is to improve health every day—and to have patient-centered care, we need to make sure we cover all aspects of that care,” Cooper says. “Our focus on seniors lets them know that Sentara is committed to their care every day. We’re here to take care of them and help them enjoy life to the fullest.”
Cooper is establishing partnerships with other community organizations to provide educational sessions for the benefit of seniors and their caregivers. For example, she worked with several local organizations to offer a senior care seminar, Honoring Our Seniors, that focuses on topics such as assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, acute rehabilitation, home health care, hospice, and advance directives.
Cooper also teamed up with JABA to offer a six-week Chronic Disease Self-Management Workshop. Davis, who participated in the sessions, found support from others in the group who were dealing with difficult circumstances. She also was inspired by a 100-year-old class member’s determination to continually improve her own quality of life.
“The class had a strong social impact, just seeing other people in similar conditions being able to get out and deal with their issues,” Davis says. “Just that chatting back and forth about how it feels to have a long-term illness was comforting. And Jessica gave us materials to take home that discuss how to manage our conditions, make plans and set goals. It was fun to be able to interact with other people, but I really appreciated the encouragement to develop a plan to challenge myself a bit, rather than being stationary. Jessica encouraged us to set goals and tackle small bits at a time.”
A member of two book clubs and a history group that explores locations from Virginia’s past, Davis is involved in numerous community activities. She also belongs to a wildlife committee, working to teach residents how to coexist with outdoor creatures in rural areas; Virginia 2021, a nonpolitical group seeking to end gerrymandering in Virginia; Spread the Vote, a nonpolitical group dedicated to increasing voter participation; and Leftie Ladies, a gently political group aimed at educating participants and supporting programs, candidates and politicians who make positive contributions to communities. She has found that life at Lake Monticello offers a very active and stimulating lifestyle, even as she manages her autoimmune disease.
Davis says the senior services offered by Sentara Martha Jefferson provide an easy path for seniors to ensure they can maintain the healthy and active lifestyles they desire.
“Six months ago, I had significant concern about my lungs, with a reduction in my breathing capacity,” Davis says. “By doing chair yoga, I’ve been able to expand my lung capacity back to a normal range. I’m also strengthening my core muscles, so I have peace of mind that I’m not as likely to lose my balance, slip and fall. Instead of just accepting the limitations of aging, programs like chair yoga encourage people to realize that they can take control of their lives and improve from where they are— just a little bit at a time. Sentara Martha Jefferson is doing a great community service, and these services—which are offered for free—are aimed at keeping people out of the hospital. What a great community service that is.”
Fitness Options for Seniors
Classes meet at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Kessler Conference Room, Outpatient Care Center, 595 Martha Jefferson Drive, Charlottesville.
Classes are FREE and open to the public, but registration is required (by calling 1-800-SENTARA or going to Sentara.com).
Ageless Grace Timeless Fitness for Body and Mind
This wellness program consists of 21 simple exercises that activate brain function and enhance physical skills affected by aging. Exercises are done seated in a chair, with standing as an option, and target joint mobility, spine flexibility, balance, cognitive function, self-esteem and more!
• June 11, 25 July 2, 23
Senior Chair Yoga
Practice gentle yoga poses while sitting on a chair or standing and using a chair for support. Improve your breathing, flexibility, balance and stability; reduce stress and anxiety; and practice mindfulness. No prior yoga experience necessary.
• May 27, 30
June 3, 13, 17