SEATTLE -- Out on the gym floor at age 92, Inger Byrne's cheeks flush as she leans on a walker for balance and kicks to the beat of "Achy Breaky Heart."
The long-lived Norwegian and about 40 other good sports are working up a sweat at the Northshore Senior Center in Bothell, Wash., pioneering a matter of intense interest to the rest of us -- how to grow old well.
They are participants in the Senior Wellness Program, an initiative that's turning heads nationally for achieving the seemingly impossible -- improving the physical and emotional well-being of frail older adults while saving health-care dollars.
Participants can get an individualized health assessment and action plan; regular exercise and strength training; classes on how to manage the chronic conditions of old age; and backup support from a peer mentor. A senior can be teamed up with a registered nurse, a social worker and a mentor. The senior's primary-care physician also is kept informed.
People can participate in all or just certain aspects of the program.
The results have been powerful.
A study looked at 200 chronically ill adults who participated in the program and found a 38 percent reduction in the number of seniors hospitalized and a reduction of 72 percent in the number of days they spent in the hospital.
Participants also reduced their use of sleep medications and other mind-altering drugs, increased their physical activity and improved their ability to perform the activities of daily life, according to the study.
It's estimated the study's participants saved $80,000 to $90,000 in hospital expenses over a year.
The wellness program has spread to more than 30 senior centers around Seattle. In Virginia, two senior centers are using it. Milwaukee County in Wisconsin is also considering adopting parts of the program. Recently, the National Council on the Aging decided to review the program and study whether it should be promoted elsewhere around the country.
The program's specific components include:
* A Health Enhancement Program that uses a nurse in the senior center to help seniors create a detailed evaluation of chronic conditions such as arthritis and diabetes. The nurse also evaluates attitudes and behaviors toward nutrition, smoking, alcohol use, home safety, leisure and work activity.
The nurse also reviews medications and puts seniors through a battery of physical performance tests such as a fast-paced walk, getting in and out of a chair, and going up and down stairs.
With the nurse's help, the senior develops a personal-improvement plan. Progress is tracked and computerized so a report can be produced for the senior and the physician. This also assures the program is replicated consistently.
* Lifetime Fitness is an hourlong, three-day-a-week class designed with the latest exercises for seniors. It focuses on balancing, stretching, aerobics and strength training with wrist and ankle weights.
* Self-Management of Chronic Conditions is a seven-session course, developed by a researcher at Stanford University, that teaches people strategies for living with chronic conditions, managing medications and coping with pain, depression and other transitions, such as the death of a spouse.
Participants set short-term goals, then report back to the group on their success.
A goal can be as simple as cutting down on sweets, reaching the kitchen shelf to pull down a can of food or getting to the senior center.
Plans now are in the works to sell the program.
Pub Date: 04/11/99