Age is just a number for 90-year-olds at Howard County exercise class

There are senior exercise classes all across Howard County, an ever-increasing number catering to an ever-increasing population.

But then there is Susan Kain's seated exercise class, held two days a week at the Glenwood Senior Center Plus in Cooksville.

This class doesn't just have seniors. This class has a half-dozen participants 90 years old or older — and a seventh who will turn 90 in a few months.

County Office on Aging officials said they did not know of any other classes with so many 90-plus participants, and Kain, who has taught exercise classes for seniors for 20 years, said this was a first for her.

"It's very unusual," she said. "I've never had this many before."

But the unusually large number of unusually old participants does not keep this class from being lively. In a sense, the opposite is true.

"Do I feel young with this group? My goodness, yes," joked 89-year-old Albert Byron before a recent class — a comment that drew immediate laughs and a rebuke from a couple of his older classmates.

"His pacemaker gets to going so fast sometimes he has to stop and rest," said Bob Frothingham, 93.

The "ever witty" Frothingham, as Kain refers to him, is something of the court jester of the group. But he's just one of the many animated men and women who make the class, which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, as much a social club as an exercise class.

"For some of these men and women, this is about the only time they see other people their age," Kain said. "The social aspect here is very important."

The half-dozen 90-plus participants in Kain's class all live in Howard County and none live in assisted living facilities. But besides that, they are a varied lot. They include:

• Martha Brendel, 97, a lifelong farmer in Howard County who still lives on the Woodbine farm now run by her sons and whose baked goods regularly won prizes at the Howard County Fair.

"I miss baking now," she said. "I can't stand up to do it."

• Warren Sargent, 95, of Glenwood, a retired architect who designed the Glenwood Fire Station and piloted his own airplane — which he built himself — until he was 90.

"I gave it up, but I still drive a car," he said.

• Frothingham, who lives on Happy Hills Farm in Sykesville. The retired accountant fought in the Pacific Theater in World War II and has made over 300 parachute jumps, the last at age 80.

"If I live to be 95, I'm going to make another one," he said. "And it's beginning to look pretty good. I only have one-and-a-half years to go."

• Jim Walker, 93, of Glenwood, a retired engineer who also fought in the Pacific during World War II, and was piloting his own airplane until he was 85.

"I miss it," he said. "I miss all the things I used to do."

• Irene Peters, 92, who has lived in Howard County since she was 15, first in Columbia, now in Woodbine.

"This class is good for me," she said. "I get the exercise I need and it's nice to visit with the other people in the group. And, we have a great instructor."

• Alvin Hess, 90, of Lisbon, a career Navy man and former defense contractor who landed on Normandy Beach during World War II.

"I come here for the exercise and the social life," he said. "It's like a gathering of the clan."

What the six men and women share, besides their longevity, is what Kain and Hess suggested: a passion for the exercise class, their instructor and each other that keeps them coming back week after week after week.

"I take this class to get out, to go and see the people," said elder stateswoman Brendel, a comment echoed with only slight variation by all of the others. "I like all the people, and I like the teacher. That's the main thing."

"I'm with a group of people here that I pretty well understand," Walker said. "It's the contact with people of a similar age that I like."

A rarity

Exercise classes geared to seniors are not unusual in Howard County.  The county's senior centers offer about 50, ranging from seated classes, to dance classes, to low-impact aerobic classes.

Still, while such records are not kept few could recall a specific class with so many 90-plus members.

"That sure sounds like a lot to me," said Dayna Brown, administrator of the county Office on Aging. "That's pretty cool."

But Brown, noting the rise in the senior population (the county had 780 residents 90 or older in 2000 and 1,066 in 2010, according to Census Bureau data), said such classes might not be so rare in the future.

"I think we're going to be seeing a lot more of this," she said. "That's where the population is going."

Kain's class, which on a recent Thursday had about 15 participants, lasts an hour and includes a wide range of activities. Members lift small dumbbells (typically a couple of pounds apiece), stretch their arms and their backs, shuffle their feet and kick their legs, clap their hands in simulated jumping jacks — all done gently, all while seated.

At one point, they separate into pairs, each pair facing each other, and are given badminton rackets, which they use in a spirited (to varying degrees) game of seated, two-person badminton. Multi-colored balloons float gently throughout the room, as do the grunts and laughs of the players.

When she's not giving instructions, Kain peppers the class with a running patter of comments and questions.

"So what's it like to have about 100 years of history to look at?" she asks Sargent at one point.

"Depends on when you look," he replies. "Some of it's boring as hell."

Later, she asks the class if anyone has any special plans for the weekend. When the class is briefly and unusually silent, she looks at a visitor. "We are an exciting bunch here," she says.

Such kidding aside, Kain and her elderly charges are nothing if not a mutual admiration society.

"The instructor," said Sargent, when asked what he likes about the class.

"She's really a nice person, and she can handle the men real good," Frothingham added. "She can talk about anything."

Including, it happens, her seated senior exercise class.

"This group, they really are a blessing," said Kain, who is in her 50s. "It's like having another set of parents. … They're very dear."

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