Learning to Walk


Next month Jack and I will have been together for 1 year. And what a year it has been. I often wonder who has benefited more, me or him. He turned 88 in this past year, my eldest and one of my dearest clients, ok I care for them all or I wouldn’t want to help them but that is for a different post.

I was hired to help Jack by his daughter who lives out of state. She said she had hired physical therapists many times to help her father, but couldn’t get him to stick to any kind of exercise regime, he was usually very rude to the hired help and either they or he quit, and he preferred just to sit in his motorized wheel chair. She didn’t sound very hopeful that I would work out either but was hoping I would at least meet her dad. Jack’s son, in his 60s, met me at the retirement village where his father lives to introduce us, and well, his son also showed he doubted I would be able to help his father or even work with him for very long. I can still remember his exact words, “I hope you like listening to Fox News.”

We walked in the apartment at the retirement center, all the residents have their own apartments and the facility is very nice, clean and upscale.

Jack didn’t even look up when we walked into his apartment, just stared at the television. His son introduced us, he waved a piece of paper of exercises he is supposed to be doing, he barely looked at me. His son walked around the apartment uncomfortably and Jack didn’t talk to me. I told Jack I would be back in a couple of days to work with him. The uncomfortableness between Jack and his son was stifling in the room.

As we walked out to our cars, I told his son not to worry, I could talk to a wall, and me and his father would get along just fine. I drove away trying to stay positive but worried how I would motivate him to exercise with me.

I started with Jack the next week with the plan I would see him 3 times a week. I got there with my bag of exercise equipment, talking too much and smiling and he sat in his motorized wheel chair staring at Fox news but not listening to it or me. I went on about the upcoming election, and then about basketball and football and found something we could talk about. Sports, he loved sports. In between our sports discussion, I got him to lift some small weights, but his arms and legs had atrophied so badly he had trouble lifting his arms over his shoulder and couldn’t move his legs without using his arms. He needed help to go to the bathroom and get in and out of bed. But now I had a plan. I had a way to get him to engage with me and a reason to work with me, to go the bathroom by himself. He hated having people help him.

The next day I didn’t come back with weights and bands and exercise stuff—I came with a soccer ball, a basket, and basketball.

We practiced dribbling the basketball with both hands and kicking the soccer ball with both legs. He felt silly in the beginning but enjoyed the laughter and activity and could make 10 baskets in a row with the basketball. Now he was using his arms well and the legs he could kick the ball all the way across the room. When I saw that right leg lift off the ground with little effort I knew I was getting somewhere. His daughter called him every few days and he asked his daughter, “can Vanessa come more days?” She was thrilled to ask me for that. I started working with him 4-5 days a week.

And I was in. He trusted me, I didn’t hurt him, it didn’t feel like exercise, he laughed, and the main thing that happened was his brain began to work also. When I first met him, he was numb, barely remembered I was coming and who I was, just going through the motions. Now we conversed about his life, his wife who passed away, his family, current events. He knew what day of the week it was and what time I was coming the next day. He also became very interested in who I was personally and my business, asking me questions daily and remembering what we had talked about before.

Some days I could get him to stand up and lean on his walker. I worked on his shoulder strength, hip and thigh strength, and how to stand up safely on his own. So daily we would get up on the walker and do balancing exercises but not leave the apartment.

He had no desire to go outside and hadn’t been outside the building for years except to go to the doctor. He revolved around going downstairs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So, I didn’t tell him, just told him to follow me in his chair. And we got out in the sunshine and had fun running around going over speed bumps in his wheelchair.

But that wasn’t my job as I saw it. His daughter was thrilled I got him to go outside but I wasn’t content, I had to get him to walk. Honestly I forgot why I had a bad day that day, but I was down mentally. Usually I am up, excited and encouraging with all my clients. But not that day. That day I was fed up with myself. Probably another bad date!! Ha

I got Jack to do his little jog in his chair to warm up. Then I put his walker in front of him and told him to get up. He got up on the second try and I opened the door and said, “Jack we are going for a walk.”

And we did. We walked down to the elevator and back. A couple of women who clean the rooms saw us and were in shock, stopping in their tracks. They just stared. I found out a few months later no one had seen Jack walk in years and he and everyone else didn’t believe he could walk.

I never believed he couldn’t walk. We walk 4-5 days a week on his walker for 10 minutes and go outside at least once a week. He is very happy every time I see him and ready to get to work.

Every day I watch him get up I am in awe how the human body and mind can succeed with a little encouragement. Being able to take care of himself and not rely on other people makes him feel more alive and happy and more social with the other residents too. I always look forward to seeing Jack.