Tai Chi for Seniors: Part #2

photo4Part Two

Part one of this essay dealt with how the public perception of Tai Chi evolved over the years from “new age” to mainstream. I discussed Tai Chi’s acceptance by the medical community, the consequences of aging and how Tai Chi addressed these issues. I concluded by voicing my reservations about the efficacy of the numerous senior oriented Tai Chi instructional videos that are so prevalent today.

These videos employ condensed forms that last from 1–2 minutes. Their source of inspiration appears to have been the ground breaking study on fall prevention for the elderly at Emory University in 1995. The Emory form was a Yang variant that was created by one of the researchers, Dr Tingsten Xu. The study participants, ages 70–90, reduced their frequency of falls by 47.5% . These results were certainly impressive, however, the study sample was limited to seniors who were classified as being “vigorous”. Those who used assistive devices (walkers, canes, or crutches ) for ambulation did not qualify for the study. One may therefore question the appropriateness of the “senior’ forms for the sizeable part of this population that is not considered “vigorous”. Regardless of the brevity of a form, these videos expect seniors to move in ways that may have become entirely foreign to them. Core skills such as weight shifting, trunk/hip rotation, and rooting/balance often deteriorate as the result of aging and inactivity. Without these adequate foundational skills frustration is likely to occur when trying to learn these “simple” forms. This often results in a high attrition rate, and the unfortunate loss of the opportunity to gain the many benefits that Tai Chi has to offer. Fortunately, there is a way to bring Tai Chi’s benefits to a broader segment of this population, without sacrificing the principles of the art.

A few years ago, I attended a continuing education workshop that presented stratagies for improving balance. The course initially caught my attention because it was based on the late Prof. Cheng Man Ching’s “8 Methods“. As the result of his own early health problems, Prof Cheng dedicated himself to imparting the health benefits of Tai Chi to the Chinese populace. He created his simplified Yang form in order to make Tai Chi accessible to the average citizen. In his later years , Prof Cheng took his quest one step further by developing the “8 Methods” as a means of benefitting those who needed Tai Chi most – the frail and elderly. Prof Cheng used postures and movements from the form that contained the essence of Tai Chi’s principles. Movements such as “push”, “white crane spreads wings”, the “empty step”, and “cloud hands” were utilized to improve balance, leg stength, and coordination–all essential for maintaining functional effeciency as one ages. They can easily be adapted to suit the individual’s level of function. If balance is precarious, “push” can be practiced with one’s back near a wall and hands holding or gliding along a walker. As stability improves, the walker can gradually be eliminated. The “empty step” can intially be done with one hand gliding along a counter.

From my vantage point as a physical therapist, I am impressed with how applicable these movements are for a broad range of clinical conditions, and how they translate into aiding with day to day activities that younger individuals take for granted, ie: safely getting in and out of a tub, rising up from a chair, lifting objects, stair climbing, etc.

I began studying Tai Chi at about the same time I entered physical therapy school. From the very beginning I realized Tai Chi’s great value as a rehabilitation modality. The medical community is finally giving it the recognition it deserves. Seniors need to engage in activities that challenge their balance when transitioning from one position to another. They must improve compromised motor skills. Tai Chi far surpasses other forms of exercise when it comes to restoring function. It is therefore imperative to present it in a manner appropriate to the needs of seniors. Prof Cheng’s “8 Methods” does this masterfully.

Part One

Gary Shapiro, married with two children,  is a former USAF navigator. He has been practicing Tai Chi for as long as he’s been a physical therapist- about 25 yrs- and is interested in applying the practical aspects of Tai Chi to benefit those he works with.

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