011220 human condition (toned)

When I joined a water aerobics class years ago, my goal was fitness. I’d weathered being widowed in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, and I was ready to focus on my own wellness: time for some serious exercise.

In the Senior Splash class at Elmwood (now Ochsner) Fitness Center, I got more than exercise. I jumped into a pool of caring, funny, supportive friends.

Although gray hairs and sagging bodies are common traits, the women — and a few stalwart men — who ride those colorful foam tubes we call “noodles” and wielding Styrofoam weights, are a varied bunch. A mix of native New Orleanians who identify by where they went to high school and transplants like me, they’ve (mostly) retired from myriad life experiences: nurses, teachers, industrial workers, managers, homemakers, social workers, laborers, professors. All share a common purpose: keep those bodies working; fight against the tsunami of old age.

“Move!” orders Cindy, the instructor, as we bounce in the water doing jumping jacks. “Squeeze that derrière. If you don’t squeeze it, nobody else will!”

Plenty of socializing happens. We hear stories of grandchildren and cheer the arrival of somebody’s “great.” We hash over family problems and warn each other about the latest phone or computer scams. We complain when water temperature isn’t right and lament the aches and pains of arthritic limbs and backs.

The class works jaw muscles along with everything else, and Cindy says some days leading the group is like corralling toddlers. But a surprising amount of exercise gets done.

This water aerobics class has lasted more than two decades, enough time to accumulate legends and lore.

Back in 2011, when NFL players went on strike, making the Saints facility off limits, some players used Elmwood’s gym for workouts. Cindy still talks about the day several Saints, including Reggie Bush, jumped into the pool to join her class. Reggie Bush riding a noodle with gray-haired grandmas is a sight I wish I’d seen.

Inevitably, our laughter is sometimes tinged with sadness. Class members or spouses have fallen ill or suffered accidents; some have passed. When that happens, friends in the class rally round, offering support or comfort. The pool can become a refuge, a place to work through grief or troubles.

I learned this firsthand when recent knee surgery kept me out of the water. I had a steady stream of encouraging messages from pool friends. Classmate Nancy had the same surgery two weeks later, and she and I raced to complete therapy and return to the pool. Self pity wasn’t possible. Classmate Diane, who endured months of chemotherapy and a far grimmer surgery, was back in the pool in time to organize the class’s annual holiday lunch.

The first day Diane returned to the pool after her mastectomy, she got a warm welcome. The bosom of her suit was stuffed with the crocheted prosthesis she'd acquired after surgery. Twenty minutes into the class, Diane suddenly wailed, "Help! I've lost my knitted knocker!" Jumping jacks became dives as class members searched frantically for the floating mass of yarn, returned with giggles to its owner.

Splashing through the tribulations of the so-called “golden years,” the laughter and warmth of friends can keep us afloat.

— Perry lives in New Orleans

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