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Lessons in living from Karen, a long-time Y volunteer who turned 80 this year!

08 July 2022 - by YMCA of Greater Toronto

Karen joined Central YMCA in 1978 right after her first child was born. She joined with a friend, and they put their kids in child-minding and never looked back.

Since 1984, Karen has volunteered as a Group Fitness instructor and says she loves every minute of her time with her friends at the YMCA. To celebrate her birthday this year, Karen spent a few weeks visiting her youngest grandchild in Barcelona. This is her fifth visit there and now considers Barcelona her “home away from home.”

Karen’s start at the Y

Karen began volunteering at the Y in 1984 when she stepped in to teach a Stretch and Strength class. She quickly took the necessary courses and exams to make her volunteering official.

She continues to teach group fitness twice a week and says that although she’s always been fit, she has had to adapt her routine somewhat to accommodate her body’s needs as she ages. This is perfect for her group because many have been exercising with Karen for 20 years or more. “The class is getting older with me,” she says.

The importance of movement

Karen was a ballet dancer when she was younger, so staying active has always been a large part of her life. “Movement is so important, especially if I’m feeling tense,” she says. Today, she only does exercises she enjoys. Karen has learned that even though she doesn’t feel a day over 60, she’s had to accept her limitations. She has also had to reconcile the fact that as much as her body is slowing down, her mind is not.  Over the years, she has had to cope with challenges like the death of her husband. As we age, we think emotions will be easier to handle she says, but we still feel as frightened and vulnerable at 80 as we did as a younger person.

Recently Karen has had bouts of vertigo, but she hasn’t let that stop her. She adapted her movements in class and sometimes if she feels dizzy, the class stops for a moment and then continues the mainly floor work. She says it’s such a pleasure to be with her class twice a week where she can relax and be comfortable and supported.

Karen continues to live in Cabbagetown in the house she and her husband bought in 1977. She says she’s got everything she needs to be able to stay in her home as she ages.

Work and volunteering

Karen has worked as a secretary and copy editor and continues to be passionate about writing. Although she doesn’t do a lot of writing anymore, she had two books published over the years. When her children were younger, she would regularly host writing groups in her home. She plans to volunteer at the Red Door Family Shelter, teaching children with learning difficulties English and writing. Karen enjoys spending time with children and wants to be involved with them as much as she can. “My grandchildren don’t live close by but that’s OK,” she says. “My friends and I share our grandchildren with each other.”

Well-being and the Y

During the pandemic, Karen missed the Y terribly but she’s getting back into her routine. “There’s something about participating at the Y that is very relaxing,” she says. When The Toronto Symphony Orchestra put on a performance for volunteers in 2021, she was deeply moved. It was the first concert she had attended in a long time and, she says, “It was magnificent!”

“The Y has helped me through a lot of emotional stuff, and I think it’s done the same for so many people,” says Karen.

Karen understands the importance of physical and mental health and how the two go hand in hand. When her husband died she experienced immense grief that felt so overwhelming. She says it’s not something you get over — you learn to live with the grief. Karen found exercise and movement and eventually reading, listening to music, and seeing friends again helped her to cope. Simple things like a warm cup of tea helped. “Just living. It’s not time — it’s living that helps,” she says.

Final words

Humbly, Karen says she doesn’t have any “words of wisdom”. She has learned from her children, and even a new exercise from her 7-month-old granddaughter. She says, “Keep your curiosity and be open to learn new things”. About aging, she says: “If you’re going up the stairs and you need to rest — then rest.”


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