99 Reasons to Walk Again
By STARLA POINTER
"Now let's march across the pool. March! Knees up!" Karen Caliendo, a physical therapy assistant, told client Bill Walker.
Walker proceeded to march, his movements assisted by the 92-degree water, which keeps him buoyant and lessens the strain on his 99-year-old muscles and joints.
"Good job!" Caliendo said. "Very good, Bill!
"Now, grab the bar and lift your heels, so you're on tip-toe..."
And so it continued for 30 minutes or so, as Walker followed Caliendo's commands for a variety of strengthening and stretching exercises, with several rest breaks. The twice-weekly workout is somewhat tiring, he said, but it feels good and he can tell it's helping.
"I think I'm getting stronger," he said.
Soon, he hopes, he will be able to march not just across the small pool at Ability Physical Therapy and Fitness, LLC, but also across his apartment. He's looking forward to the day when he can push aside his wheelchair and walk.
Walker has been using a wheelchair since early 2009 — "The week before President Obama's first inauguration," said Walker, who is a wealth of information about historical events — when he fell, hit his head and suffered a massive stroke. Rushed to a Portland hospital, he underwent surgery and weeks of rehabilitation.
"It took a while to get my wits back," Walker said. He's mentally sharp again now, but he wasn't able to recover all of his physical skills.
Earlier this year, the McMinnville man was thinking about his upcoming birthday. He would turn 99 on July 20 — "The day man walked on the moon," noted Walker, a former Los Angeles newspaper photographer, writer and college media adviser. "The day Hitler was blown up. The day Pancho Villa was assassinated."
Fed up with his wheelchair, he decided he wanted to celebrate by walking. So he called Ability Physical Therapy and made an appointment with a physical therapist and Caliendo, who specializes in water therapy.
She has been working with patients in the water for the last 22 years. A swimmer herself, she said she knows the healing power of the water, especially for older people and those who have trouble with balance or supporting their own body weight.
"It's safer," she said. "They won't fall and break anything.
"Water relieves stress on the joints. People have less pain than if they were exercising in gravity."
Water is an ideal medium in Walker's case.
He and water go back a long way — almost a century, to his boyhood. He said he learned to swim in the ocean.
He's extremely comfortable in water," she said. "He doesn't have any fear."
In fact, Caliendo said, Walker is almost too comfortable.
"He's very motivated, so I have to reign him in," she said. "It has to be gradual. I don't want him to be in pain or get stiff muscles after working too hard."
Although he's very eager to make progress, he's also willing to listen and follow direction.
"Do you think I'm demanding?" Caliendo asked Walker during a workout, passing on a question from an observer.
"No, you're not demanding," he said. "You're authoritative."
During a physical therapy session last week, just prior to his 99th birthday, Caliendo and an assistant helped Walker out of his chair and into the 8-by-12-foot pool, which is 3 feet deep at one end and 5 feet at the other.
Entering the water herself, she asked, "How are you doing today?"
"No complaints," he replied cheerily.
Walker willingly did whatever she asked — lowering and raising his arms in the water to strengthen his trunk muscles, walking forward and backward, doing knee bends, floating on his back with his arms stretched out to the sides and a float supporting his neck.
During the latter, Walker tipped a little.
"The boat's capsizing! You've sent me to the Titanic!" he joked.
Caliendo urged him to keep trying, offering him an incentive for doing his best — a birthday treat of coffee-flavored Ben & Jerry's. "You have to work off those ice cream calories," she teased.