A popular life science course focuses on outreach to Garden State seniors
Patricia Gargiulo, a 76-year-old Central Jersey woman, was doing stretching exercises in the Loree Gym and basking in the company of dozens of undergraduates.
“I love this,” she said. “I told every person I’ve talked to today that this has been great.”
On a recent rainy morning, Gargiulo and other senior citizens from Sayreville and Franklin Township boarded a bus at their local senior centers and traveled to Rutgers University–New Brunswick for a friendly session of exercise and education with students in the Department of Kinesiology and Health in the School of Arts and Sciences.
The seniors warmed up their muscles to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and then made their way around the gym, checking out the different stations students had set up: a yoga workout for flexibility; a stepping exercise to monitor heart rate; and information tables on nutrition, heart disease, and other topics.
Gargiulo said she had a bit of trouble standing on one leg during an exercise, but happily held onto “a really muscular guy” for balance.
“Learning it this way, by interacting with people, is so much more effective than reading it in a book,” she said.
The same principal holds true for the students.
Consisting mostly of exercise science majors, the students were reaching out to seniors as part of Professor Susan Kaplowitz’s “Exercise and Aging” class. The elective, a department staple that is always in high demand, draws aspiring doctors, physical therapists, and anyone else interested in working with the elderly. The course is available in upcoming winter and spring 2019 sessions.
Jerusha Peram took the class as a sophomore and liked the experience so much that she returned last year to serve as one of two course assistants to Kaplowitz.
“This is real life experience, and it’s transformative,” Peram says. “We’re going beyond what’s in our textbooks and working directly with people.”
Peram is considering a career in physical therapy.
“I really like the aspect of working one on one,” she says. “You are with the patient, and you are with the treatment. You can see the progress.”
Kaplowitz, who has been teaching the class for 20 years, is well known for bringing seniors and students together for inter-generational learning experiences. As the director of the department’s Center for Exercise and Aging, she has built relationships with senior communities across the region. Last year, she brought her students anywhere they could find an elder audience, from assisted living facilities to the local mall. They also helped out at the New Jersey Senior Olympics and the Middlesex County Department of Aging Senior Walk.
“This is probably our 12th program this year,” Kaplowitz says. “I firmly believe that the best way to learn is to go out in the community and work with the population you study in class.”
With the dramatic rise in the elderly population, she adds, such experiences are essential for all students heading into health-related fields. In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012.
Kaplowitz says interest in her course has grown steadily over the years to the point where she now offers several sections, which fill up quickly.
“The students we have are very compassionate and very smart,” she says. “They want to help people, and they know that in this major, and to get into graduate school, it’s very competitive and very demanding.”
Erin Haddon, an exercise science major who graduated in 2018, is planning to work as an EMT in her hometown of Maple Shade and then take her MCAT to pursue medical school.
“The ultimate goal or dream would be surgery,” she says.
Inside the Loree Gym, Haddon taught seniors about cardiovascular health, giving them practical tips such as how medications like antidepressants and beta blockers can affect the heart rate.
Students Alexandra Ferranti and Natalia Krasowski showed seniors some gentle yoga moves to improve posture, decrease risk of injury, and increase blood flow for overall health and vitality. Both students are interested in becoming physical therapists. And they relish working with elderly populations.
The seniors said they were impressed by the program.
“I love these students,” said Doris Regan. “They are so knowledgeable and so friendly and so willing to help.”
Regan and others said they were striving to stay active, and appreciated learning more about exercise."I love these students"
“I do a lot of walking, and I’m a golfer,” Regan said. “I belong to two leagues.”
Terry Thorsen favors a dance-oriented fitness program.
“I do Zumba,” she said. “The stepping exercise the students had me do here was quite helpful.”
Overall, the seniors left feeling upbeat and energetic.
Richard and Mary Phillipuk, a married couple from Franklin, were mulling what to do afterward.
“I guess we’ll go back to the senior center, get our car, and go home for lunch,” Richard said.
Mary gently begged to differ. She said she was now ready for a more adventurous afternoon.
“I thought we’d go down the shore,” she quipped.