More people than ever are getting old. And as the World War II American baby-boom bulge moves inexorably up the population graphs towards seniority, increased attention to old age is to be expected.
If this attention is focusing more slowly than current seniors would like, it's due partly to the almost universal tendency to simply deny one's own aging until, suddenly, one is . . . aged. (Remember in "Fiddler on the Roof" the parents' line at their children's wedding in "Sunrise, Sunset": "I don't remember getting older . . . When did they?")
Now Lawrence J. Frankel has come along to trash the very concept of creeping old age. Frankel, who is literally leaping into his own 76th year, doesn't like the phrase "senior citizen" very much. It is, he wrties, "a societal stereotype which is often meant to describe our elders as shuffling in gait, stooped in posture, and slow of mind."
Frankel has a better approach, he believes, and there are growing numbers around the country (and the world) leaping (and dancing and skipping and bouncing) over age barriers, using Frankel's formula for what he has dubbed "Preventacare."
It's exercise. But exercise carefully and lovingly adapted to "include the active ambulatory, the wheelchair-bound, bed-bound, home-bound . . . the lame, the halt and the blind." Thirty minutes of exercise about three times a week.
Some of Frankel's exercises and directions for their use by older people have been put together in a book, "Be Alive As Long as You Live," co-authored with fitness therapist Betty Byrd Richard (Lippincott & Crowell, 239 pgs., $12.95). It includes exercises for thumbs to thighs, necks to backs to toes, varying in gentleness and rigor depending on the activity status of the subject. (Of course, no one of any age -- but especially the elderly -- should undertake any exercise program without at least checking with a physician. Those with special problems should excercise only with medical supervision.)
A New Yorker transplanted to West Virginia, Frankel runs a private fitness center and a non-profit foundation for the elderly. He has taught and designed fitness programs, taught hand-to-hand combat (to police and military), cardiac rehabilitation and the like for some 30 years. He began to develop his program for the elderly about 11 years ago and in West Virginia alone, he has seen it expand to some 200 (free) programs in hospitals nursing homes, churches, nutrition sites, senior citizen centers, housing projects, with about 3,000 participants -- up to the age of 104.
He'd like to see it expand even more and spends a good bit of time these days lecturing, writing, testifying and lobbying on behalf of his brainchild.
Doctors, he pronounces, "are 50 years behind the times in recognizing what can be done by people for themselves. I like to suggest that our geriatric revolution will slow down aging and create happiness and reduce pain and suffering and, finally, save our country billions of dollars" in health care which, he likes to point out, is really "sick care."
In a recent paper before an international conference on geriatrics, Frankel wrote, "We know that we cannot cure aging, but we can slow it down and inhibit its degradations by changing poor habit patterns and by strengthening all body functions through planned physical activity. Those symptoms of aging, poor circulation, aching muscles and joints, arthritis, reduced coordination, chronic fatigue and bone degeneration, which come upon us insidiously, are conditions which are amenable to regular exercise."
Insistent that nobody is too old to start his program, Frankel tells about the 68-year-old woman who came to him with doctor's note about her heart condition. That was 10 years ago, he recalls. "Now, her doctor has died, and she is a peer-group leader."
Frankel uses music, humor, relaxation and liberal does of the Old Testament in his programs and his testimony. He quotes Proverbs and Psalms and has used as the guiding theme of his program and his book, David's Psaslm 71:9
Cast me not off in the time of old age/When my strength faileth, forsake me not.
Then he'll add with an irrepressible twinkle, "You know what they say about David and Solomon: King Solomon and King David Led merry, merry lives They had many, many ladies And many, many wives But when old age crept over them But when old age crept over them With many, many qualms King Solomon wrote the Proverbs And David wrote the Psalms.'
"Ah," says Frankel, "if they'd just had Preventacare . . ."