At Crosslands, a Quaker retirement community, fifteen eager students, between the ages of 85 and 105, wait for the workshop to begin. After learning everyone’s name, and talking a bit about what will happen through the day, I ask them if there are any activities that are hard for them. All hands go up. One woman’s sparkly eyes catch my attention. I begin with Agnes.
Sitting fairly upright, she aligns her walker squarely in front of her chair, easily stands up, then very slowly shuffles over to me.
The bottoms of her feet are not leaving the ground. Her ankles remain locked in a 90 degree flexion. Her knees hardly bend. Her hip joints look stiff. She’s hunched over.
“Agnes, would you mind walking back to your chair, and sitting down again?” Thinking that a bit odd, she nonetheless turns around and heads back to her chair.
I watch her slow, careful, shuffling. I watch her tentatively turn around, pause then sit down, gracefully. Her hips, knees, and ankles all flex smoothly and easily. Her balance is good. She’s transferring very little weight into her walker. I ask her to lean back against the back of the chair and just get comfortable. Her spine naturally lengthens. Her poise is good. I’m wondering…
“Agnes, did you ever fall when you were walking?” Yes I did, and I broke my hip.” “When was that, I ask?” Agnes calculates. “Nine years ago.”
“Agnes, I couldn’t help noticing how naturally upright you are when you are sitting, and how well your legs work when you stand up and when you sit down. You look really beautiful and strong. When you get up and down your balance is so steady.” “Really, she says?” “Group, what did you see?” They agree. I can see they like Agnes.
“If I helped you with your walking, and if I promise you that you will not fall down or get hurt, would you consider working with me a little?”
Agnes thinks about it for a moment, smiles, and says, “Sure.” She gets up and slowly shuffles over to me.
“Agnes can you keep the same amount of pressure between your hands and the walker, but gently let your head float up a tiny bit further away from the walker, so your spine feels more like it does when you are sitting?” She becomes slightly more upright. Her eyes tell me she’s a little scared. Agnes, you are safe, I promise. Tell me, do you feel more pressure or less pressure between your hands and the walker now?”
Surprised, she says, “More.” “Isn’t that interesting? You’re head’s further away from the walker and somehow that allows you to transfer more of your weight through the walker into the ground. You are higher up and yet you’re more stable. Feel that Agnes. It’s like this Agnes. A tall skyscraper could be very stable. And a little round hut close to the ground could be very unstable.” I can see the wheels spinning. She gets it. Rounding over and trying to be closer to the ground might not be helping her.
“Okay Agnes, as you are standing there and sensing your stability, can you shift your weight slightly side to side, from your left foot, then to your right foot, and then back to your left foot, without losing your large, stable structure?” I can see that scares her a little, so I walk around behind her, softly touch her ribs, almost surrounding them with my large, warm hands, and send a little support up through her spine. I see her collapsed chest fill out and her head come back over her neck. For assurance, I keep my hands on her ribs. Agnes shifts her weight. No problem. Then she shifts back again. No problem. I remove my hands so softly she doesn’t realize they’re not there. She shifts again. She continues several more times because she likes how it feels.
“Agnes. Well done. Now this time, when I finish talking, I want you to make sure that when you shift your weight, you shift your weight onto a truly straight leg, a completely straight leg. See what happens if you firmly and gently refuse to crouch over or bend your knees. But for this to work you are going to have to make up your mind to leave yourself up here, no matter how odd it feels. Go ahead and make your decision.” I can see a brave look come onto her face. There’s strength in her stance. “Agnes stick to your decision, and when you are ready, shift your weight.”
She does it perfectly. I see her friends in the class watching closely. No one is drifting off. “Agnes, well done.” This time when you shift your weight to the left, as you did so well, be there for a second, and bring your right knee forward and touch my hand.” My hand is now two inches in front of her knee. She does it, and I say, “Good.” I move my hand three inches away, and ask her to touch my hand again, and she does. Then four, then five. Agnes looks really surprised. I said, “Agnes that is what your knee does every time you sit down and get up, so I knew you could do that. I will not ask you to do anything that I don’t know you can do. I promise.”
We do it to the other side. Occasionally I remind her of her long spine and of the better stability she has through the walker, and of her straight legs. She’s now comfortable with my touch, which I use sparingly to remind her that she doesn’t need to crouch down.
“Agnes, in a moment you are going to shift your weight to the left onto a straight leg, send your right knee more forward than usual, and when your knee is forward, I want you to let your foot hang down like a horse’s hoof. Then you are going to let your foot come down to the ground wherever it wants to.” She does it. No shuffling, no sound, but I do not say anything about it.
“Well done. Agnes, is this fun?” Eyes sparkling she says, “Yes, fun.” “Good. For me too.”
“Okay Agnes, can you sense that your feet are now slightly apart but instead of being side by side, one foot is just a little bit in front of the other? She nods. “Can you continue sensing all your stability, and shift your weight diagonally forward onto your straight right leg? I am standing behind her, my hands on either side of her ribs encouraging her to remain easily upright. She takes her step. “Perfect.”
About 10 minutes have gone by. We are in another world, a world where time has stopped. Agnes has taken one real step.
We do the same with the left knee, and then with the right again, and the left again.
“Okay Agnes. If you can take one step like that, one stable, safe step, then don’t you think you could take two, and if you can take two safe, stable steps, don’t you think you could take three?” Agnes, decide to walk like that, at whatever speed feels comfortable for you. Go take your walker for a walk, as if you were walking a shopping cart down the isle of a supermarket.”
I stand behind her placing my hands lightly upon the back and sides of her lower ribs. We’re in tandem. When her right knee goes forward my right knee goes forward right under hers. But my touch is so light she hardly feels I am there. After taking about 5 steps, my touch fades away. She is walking on her own, with her walker, upright, stable, safe.
“Agnes. Look at George, and walk over to him.” She does. She’s smiling. Now look at Ethel, and walk over to her. She does. She’s gaining confidence. Now look at Ada and walk over to her. She let’s out a laugh. Each time she walks over to a person, Agnes is thinking less about herself and more about the person she is seeing. And each time, without noticing it, she is walking faster. But looking around, I see that Agnes’s friends are noticing it.
I am standing in front of Agnes. I kindly hold my hands in front of her inviting her to put her hands on top of mine. It’s like I am inviting her to dance with me. Agnes looks me in the eyes, not thinking about her body and places her palms on top of my palms. “Agnes, I am a very good walker, and I’d like to be your walker.” I ask Ada to take Agnes’s walker promising Agnes that I will give it back to her. “Agnes, take me for a walk.” As Agnes walks forward, I walk backwards. She’s leading and I am following. We’re dancing.
“Agnes, walk me back to your chair.” She does. I sit down. My hands slide out from under Agnes’s hands. Agnes is standing fully upright on her own, but I say nothing. I slide my hands back under Agnes’s hand. Bending over slightly, I slowly begin to stand up and reflexively Agnes helps me onto my feet. I ask her to turn me around, so we can switch places, because it is her turn to sit down. She is not thinking about herself, she is thinking about turning me around. She is in the lead.
“Thanks Agnes. You can sit down now.” I drop my hands away and, without her walker, Agnes sits down.
Agnes feels safe, secure, and stable, because she is.