Age gracefully with a little help from Tai Chi instruction

I've seen them many times. You've seen them too. I'm referring to elderly folks with age-related changes in posture and movement. They usually walk very slowly. Their heads seem to be out in front of the rest of their bodies. They take short, shuffling steps, occasionally swaying from side to side.

Could that be me in another decade or two, maybe in another few years? I'm simply not enchanted with such a vision of myself. There must be a better way to move into the next phase of aging.

"Lead with your hips," is what Lillibet (don't you love that name — so joyful-sounding, full of possibility) advises me. She is a Tai Chi instructor, one of many in our Valley teaching classes using "Tai Chi: Moving Toward Better Balance" approaches.

It's an eight-form Tai Chi developed at the Oregon Research Institute.

Solid research supports its success in improving posture, balance, flexibility and the capacity to move more gracefully. Research indicates this form of Tai Chi, tailored to the aging adult, significantly reduced falling behaviors in people over age 85.

I think there's an opportunity for you to move, with me, into more graceful, falls-free aging. Let me explain. Well over a year ago, I witnessed a 76-year old man demonstrate Tai Chi. I still get goose bumps when I recall the serenity and power of his movements. It was beautiful.

I'm intent on assuring the Tai Chi message and this particular 12-week Tai Chi series becomes more available in our community. In collaboration with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments' Senior and Disabled Services, the Oregon State University Extension has received a three-year grant to offer "Tai Chi for Better Balance and Fall Reduction" classes.

For the last grant-funded year we have been quietly offering the series in senior centers and retirement settings. I was invited to watch a group of elders who were just completing a 12-week series (twice a week, one-hour classes). I heard them talk about the benefits. More goose bumps. There's not an appropriate word to describe that experience — well, maybe "mesmerizing."

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension Service. She can be reached at

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