STANDISH — Ever since Marilyn Murch of Windham began exercising with the SilverSneakers program at Saint Joseph’s College, she said she “can walk the length of my hallway without the cane, and I don’t even miss it.”

Launching SilverSneakers in March was the first phase of the College’s new Institute for Integrative Aging. Through the Institute, the college hopes to integrate older adults into its population while addressing the issue of loneliness in the region.

By all accounts, the program is succeeding at what it set out to do.

Ashley O’Brion, senior director of Customer Experience, said since the launch, “We have a lot of attendees and great feedback.”

Jenna Chase, associate director of Health and Wellness Programming, said SilverSneakers, a national health program focused on adults who are over 65, typically attracts between 25 and 35 participants a class.

“We are really working on the activities of daily life: bringing groceries in, getting in and out of the car or the shower more easily, putting the sugar on the shelf. We’re working on things that they really need throughout the day,” Chase said.

Attendees have been having so much fun, she added, that “they get here early now just to chit chat.”

At 95, Shirley Saunders of Windham is the oldest participant.

“I went a long time without being around people. SilverSneakers is wonderful. I like being in a room full of people and even more so when they’re close to my age,” Saunders said in a press release.

Murch also enjoys the program. “My goal is to be less dependent on my cane,” she said in the release. “I like that it’s such a friendly group. Everyone is ready with high fives and a hug.”

Saint Joseph’s offers muscle, stability and classic SilverSneakers classes, and Chase said participants often remain on campus to go for a walk or have lunch.

O’Brion said the college wants older adults to feel welcome on campus since “incorporating the older adult community is one of our focuses.”

“The No. 1 problem facing this community is loneliness, and that affects health,” she continued. “The older adult community is so happy with these classes and the community. The Institute for Integrative Aging is very focused on events and bringing this community together.”

She said the college is also working on other ways to make the campus more friendly for older adults, such as creating more handicapped parking spaces near the fitness center.

This summer, farm-to-table lunches will be offered at the college’s Stone Barn on Wednesdays, as well as ukulele classes. More events will be announced in the future.

In addition to SilverSneakers, the Institute, which has been in the works for three years, has four separate aspects to it, explained Peter Nielsen, the executive director for the Institute for Integrative Aging.

The first component is offering courses and certificates for older adults and “creating learning opportunities,” Nielsen said.

The second aspect involves opening up the college’s fitness center to older adults. The third part is building a senior residential community on college land.

“We have 474 acres of land here, most of it undeveloped, and we plan to build a senior residential community and integrate with it,” Nielsen said.

The final part is making the college a gathering point for older adults in order to “address the social crisis around loneliness and rural isolation for seniors in Maine,” Nielsen added.

Some of these projects, such as building a senior residential community on campus, will take years to complete. But although many components are still in the early stages, the work has definitely begun.

“The mission of the college is to serve society,” Nielsen said. “We’re called to provide education and infrastructure in service of an aging population.”

Jane Vaughan can be reached at 780-9103 or at [email protected]

From left, Judy Altepeter, Donna Lobao, Shirley Saunders and Joan Lauler participate in a SilverSneakers strength class.

Thirty participants gathered for a SilverSneakers strength class on May 28.

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