At the front of the small auditorium in north Minneapolis, Bounleuth Gowing flashes a brilliant smile as she coaxes participants to stretch, shift, align and move. Traditional Laotian music plays in the background as the 20 or so participants respond with graceful, synchronized movements using traditional Tai Chi forms.
The older adults are participating in Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance, an evidence-based program introduced to the Lao Advancement Organization of America and other metro organizations serving older adults by David Fink, program developer at the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging (MAAA). The goal of the program is to reduce falls by improving balance, strength, flexibility and physical performance in older adults. “We wanted to find an evidence-based fall prevention program that could be easily implemented by bilingual leaders for non-English speaking older adults, and Tai Chi: Moving For Better Balance has been excellent in meeting that need.”
Fuzhong Li, PhD, at the Oregon Research Institute, developed the community-based Tai Chi program and has offered three 2-day training sessions since 2012 sponsored by MAAA for prospective leaders in the metro area. Bounleuth and her co-leader, Danai Phongthani, and 44 other leaders have attended the training.
“I was leading various type of classes before we started the Tai Chi program but it was hard to keep people involved or to see progress. The Tai Chi program provides a structure that people like and is easy for me to lead,” says Bounleuth. “We made some modifications to the program to fit our group and to keep it fresh and fun but we stick with the fundamentals of the program. Tai Chi is making a difference for our elders.”
Boualay Inthavong and Sy Inthachinda, participants in the Tai Chi program, came to America from Laos in the late 1970s and early 1980s as refugees after a Communist government came to power in Laos in 1975.
Boualay and Sy praise the Tai Chi class. “It makes me feel better. I have learned to move in different ways and I enjoy socializing with others before and after the class,” says Boualay. According to Sy, “Before I started the class, I needed a cane to walk. Now I walk without a cane . . . and I walk fast!”
“Our elders like the class very much and don’t want to miss it,” says Bounleuth. “Many of them schedule their appointments around the class. If someone needs to miss a class, I usually get a call saying, ‘don’t take me off the list, I will be back for the next class.’”
You might think that the older adults in northwest Minnesota, predominately of Scandinavian and German descent, would be less likely to take to Tai Chi. Karen Lenius, Senior Programs/RSVP director for the Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership is quick to say that’s not true.
Her organization partners with the Land of the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging and Central Minnesota Council on Aging to offer Tai Chi in 13 sites in five counties across northwestern Minnesota. Dr. Li has offered two training sessions in the area, training 30 volunteers to lead the Tai Chi sessions. Karen estimates that 196 older adults participate regularly in the Tai Chi programs. “The program is so good for strengthening the core of the body,” says Karen. “After Tai Chi, people have a much better ability to move without over extending. They have improved balance and much less chance of falling.”
In addition to the programs mentioned above, the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging supports classes in English, Laotian, Somali, Oromo, Korean, Vietnamese, Hmong, Khmer and Spanish at various locations in the metropolitan area and plans to expand the program to additional English and non-English speaking groups in 2014. The Central Minnesota Council on Aging offers Tai Chi in partnership with two Saint Cloud partners: Catholic Charities and the Whitney Community Center.
Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance is funded with Title IIID Health Promotion federal funds as part of the Older Americans Act under contract with individual Minnesota Area Agencies on Aging.