Asked what services the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) of Central Wisconsin provides in Marathon, Wood, Langlade and Lincoln Counties, two of the agency’s community health educators laugh. It’s a long list.
“We offer healthy living classes and evidence-based programs,” says Ciara Schultz, MS. “We do Meals on Wheels and congregate meal sites. We have resource and benefits specialists to help navigate public and private supports. We walk people through their long-term care options.”
“We have social workers who support caregivers,” adds her colleague, Peggy Kurth, BA. “We lend out assistive devices that people can use for free, for up to six months. We maintain a list of local people who are available for hire to help with tasks like shoveling snow or driving to the grocery store.”
Still, Schultz and Kurth are excited to add a new program to their list: Physical Activity for Life for Seniors (PALS, profiled in our spring 2014 issue).
PALS is an evidence-based exercise program that helps older adults become and stay physically active. University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing Assistant Professor Kim Gretebeck, PhD, RN and others developed PALS as a program for urban diabetes patients, led by nurses and physical therapists.
PALS is now being adapted to meet the needs of rural older adults, as part of a Center for Aging Research and Education initiative supported by the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. Schultz and Kurth are among the first community health educators to bring PALS to rural Wisconsin.
During a ten week in-person class, PALS participants exercise and engage in goal setting and problem solving around incorporating physical activity into their lives. They receive follow-up phone calls at home for several months following the class, to encourage them to stay active and to help them address barriers to exercising.
“When we make those follow-up calls and hear that they’re continuing to exercise, we’ll know that the program is a success,” says Schultz. Previous studies showed that PALS participants overwhelmingly improve their physical condition and maintain that improvement over the follow-up period.
“We hope that they’ll start wanting to exercise, outside of class and after the class is over,” says Kurth. “I look forward to hearing that people are feeling better, physically and emotionally, because they’re more active.”
Sticking to a new exercise routine can be difficult for anyone, but there are additional challenges for older adults in rural communities.
“There’s not as much access to physical activity programs,” explains Jill Renken, MPH, CHES. She’s the liaison between PALS community partners and UW researchers, working with the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources and Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging.
In rural areas, “there may be no gyms or other exercise facilities, or they’re not really open to older adults,” adds Renken. In contrast, PALS “can go anywhere, like a church basement, and that’s a real benefit. It also has a behavior change component. There are very few lifestyle classes in rural communities, and PALS offers both exercise and lifestyle components.”
ADRC of Central Wisconsin is starting to recruit for its first PALS class, to be held in Wausau starting in March. Classes will be held in Merrill and Wisconsin Rapids later this year.
Potential participants “need to be able to move, but aren’t exercising regularly,” says Renken. “We want to see if we can improve their physical health.”
PALS is designed to make older adults’ transition from being less active to exercising regularly easy and fun. During class, participants rotate between stations, each featuring a gentle activity that can be adapted to different abilities.
“It’s much less intimidating than your average exercise class,” Renken says. “Plus, there’s a social component—we’re laughing together as we’re doing the activities.”
PALS is not only being adapted for rural Wisconsin, it’s also being made more accessible and affordable for various audiences.
“We want the program to be replicated throughout the state,” says Renken. “The ultimate goal is to disseminate PALS beyond Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging has taken other evidence-based programs nationwide, working with aging networks and public health partners.”
The need for a program like PALS is obvious, according to Renken. “If more older adults are physically active, we can reduce the demand on our overburdened health care system,” she says. “And we can help prevent chronic diseases, like diabetes.”
Schultz and Kurth see PALS as important to their work, too. “The mission of the ADRC is to provide choices for people, to keep them independent and to help them live good quality lives,” says Kurth.
Photos from ADRC of Central Wisconsin
July 2019 update: PALS now stands for Physical Activity for Lifelong Success. The Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging is in the process of training 30 leaders across the state to offer the PALS program. PALS developer Kim Gretebeck, PhD, RN is now at Marquette University.