Jewish Journal

Arthritis Rumba

Keeping joints fluid at the Jewish Home for the Aging.

by Charlotte Hildebrand

Posted on Oct. 26, 2000 at 8:00 pm

Sylvia Birenbaum, 88, calls herself the "bionic woman."

Sylvia Birenbaum, 88, calls herself the "bionic woman."

"Ouch," cried a perfectly coiffed, white-haired lady. "It hurts."

"My fingers won't listen to me," a tall brunette complained.

But Susanne Haymaker, their exercise teacher at the Jewish Home for the Aging, wouldn't listen. "Lift your fingers up if they're hurting, " Haymaker encouraged. "That will signal the brain. People with severe arthritis have to help their fingers along."

They say that love makes the world go round, but watching these 12 ladies go through their paces, one might settle for exercise instead. The women, mid-80's through early 90's, meet with Haymaker once a week for specialized exercises for people with arthritis. Haymaker, a UCLA-trained movement specialist with a degree in dance, is a teacher with the Arthritis Foundation. The class, however, originated four years ago when Haymaker decided to teach at the Home during a Mitzvah Day at a local synagogue.

Besides the arthritis class, the women attend daily exercise classes and ride a stationary bike to stay fit. It's no surprise then, with all their activities, that they look younger and stronger than their generous years.

There are 105 types of arthritis; in its simplest form, it's an inflammation of the joints that causes pain and stiffness, swelling and degeneration. For some of the ladies in the class, arthritis has attacked their arms and knees, others their necks and ears; one woman has pain in her toes.

So they come to class to be healed.

On this day, the ladies sat in a circle and started the simplest of isolations - rolling their heads to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." They progressed to shoulder rolls, chin tucks, arms lifting from shoulders, to alternate arms and legs lifting, all from a seated position.

"You don't have to have arthritis to be part of my class," Haymaker said, "Some have Parkinson's, strokes, problems with their balance. "

The secret ingredient, Haymaker explained, was putting each joint through a range of motion, which stimulates the synovial fluid in the joints. With lack of movement, the joints become stiff and painful, making it difficult to walk or use one's arms or any of the several hundred limitations that arthritis thrusts upon a person. By exercising, the joints become, literally, more fluid.

Anne Kristman, "89 and a half, and proud of it!" has arthritis in her toes.

She works out every morning, either in the daily exercise class or on a stationary bike. When told she looks great, she replied, "Yes! And I feel great, too."

Sylvia Birenbaum, 88, one of the few at the home who still reads and speaks Yiddish, is a long-time practitioner. She exercised daily at the Valley JCC for 14 years and still does 50 every day. "I'm the bionic woman," she said laughing, pointing out her hip and knee replacements and two hearing aids that she wears.

For Sarah Gutman, who is "old enough," the class has helped her move her affected arm above her shoulder. "Yes, the exercise class really helps me, " she said, demonstrating how she can move her arm with ease now.

For Elizabeth Moskowitz, 90, dressed in a stylish black dress and matching jewelry, who was an assistant designer in New York for 10 years, the class is a continuation of what she has done all her life. "I used to go to Hollywood High at night after work to exercise," she reported. Artist Victoria Dabah, who uses a walker, also exercises as much as possible. "I bicycle 15 minutes every day," she said proudly, hurrying off to her art class.

At a time when it might be tempting to take it easy, these determined women prove that exercise keeps them younger, fitter and in good humor.

"Humor is very important to feeling well," said Haymaker. "Even though the information I give out is serious, technical, if I keep it light and enjoyable, make a joke, the whole time we're exercising is enjoyable. It makes a lot of difference."

For more information about exercise classes to relieve arthritis, call the Los Angeles chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, (323) 954-5750, or log on to www.arthritis.org

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