Shortly after Schweitzer Fellow Ilda Bajraktari wrapped up one of her exercise classes at the Aging Resource Center in Lebanon, NH, a student with a progressive neurological disease that limits his ability to care for himself, approached her. Taking her class had restored his mobility to the point where he could put on his jacket by himself, he told her.
“While this may seem like an incredibly small achievement to most people,” says Bajraktari, “the smile on his face told me just how important it was to him.”
Such achievement is precisely the goal of Active for Life, the bi-weekly class Bajraktari designed in which she leads older adults through a combination of aerobic, flexibility, and resistance training aimed at improving their strength, endurance, mobility, and balance.
Bajraktari, a student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, knows firsthand the importance of staying active as we age. As a child, she emigrated from Albania to Worcester, MA, with her parents and brother. Bajraktari’s grandparents followed a year later, and within three months, her grandfather suffered a heart attack and her grandmother broke her leg. The events served as a wake-up call for the elderly couple, prompting them to eat better, engage in physical therapy and find an affordable housing community that provided ample opportunity to socialize with others.
Because of their positive lifestyle changes, “my grandparents are a wonderful example of adults thriving into their seventies and eighties,” says Bajraktari. But she believes they are the exception and that there is a need for more community-based programs to help seniors stay physically fit.
That’s why Bajraktari designed Active for Life with two goals in mind. First, she wants to teach people to take an active role in maintaining health has they age, so they’ll then set examples for others in the community, she explains.
“I hope my efforts will promote healthy aging and supportive, lasting relationships for people in and outside of my class,” she says.
Second, Bajraktari plans to build a small network of volunteers—perhaps Geisel students and local folks who utilize the Aging Resource Center—that will expand and sustain the class beyond her Fellowship year.
“It would be amazing to have one of my current participants lead an exercise group of their own at some point,” says Bajraktari. “In this way, the group would become almost self-sufficient as existing members could help to teach new recruits.”
Bajraktari’s exercise class reflects her holistic approach to treating patients. “Where a patient lives, the social network in which they exist, and the support they receive, all integrate into overall health or disease,” she explains. “Active for Life allows me to impact upon patients’ health in a different way from what is typically taught in medical school. Learning from my grandparents’ experiences, I know the influence regular exercise can have in a person’s life.”
In fact, Bajraktari believes the need for a more holistic, preventive model of care is one of our most pressing health care issues today. Much of medicine is necessarily focused on treating a patient after injury or illness has occurred, but the underlying causes of such problems too often go unaddressed, she observes.
“Finding the time to practice preventative care can be incredibly difficult for a doctor,” Bajraktari acknowledges, “but I believe it is an absolute necessity if we are going to make dents into epidemics like obesity and Type 2 diabetes.”
Bajraktari takes pride in the fact that she is practicing prevention with her students, improving their strength and balance, thus decreasing their likelihood of falling and related injuries. She is surprised by how quickly they have progressed.
“People that struggled to get out of a chair on their own are now dong multiple sets of squats and lunges,” she says. “It goes to show that it’s never too late to make a change.”
She says she is grateful for the opportunity the Schweitzer Fellowship gives her to make such tangible changes and to live by Albert Schweitzer’s maxim, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
“I want to promote healthier aging throughout the Upper Valley area by example,” says Bajraktari. “My physical exercise class is a tangible and sustainable way to serve the underprivileged elder community, while encouraging others to cherish the older adults around us.”
While she’s pleased to perform a badly needed service in the community, she’s also reaping benefits: Bajraktari’s class is a welcome break from the demands of medical school.
“I always look forward to the 90 minutes that I get to spend with my class. I knew coming into the project that I was likely to make a number of new friends with the class participants, but I am truly surprised by how close we have all become in such a short period of time,” she says. “It really is the best part of my week.”
Click here to learn more about the Schweitzer Fellows Program in New Hampshire/Vermont and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.