When imagining a boxing lesson, one’s imagination might immediately turn to the poorly-lit training facilities seen in the movies, envisioning figures like Rocky or Muhammad Ali floating like butterflies as they sting the punching bag. Of course, the scene is never complete without a coach screaming and pushing the athletes as far as they can to victory. While this may be the idea most people have when they think of boxing, for the senior residents of Park Terrace, a premier senior living community in Rancho Santa Margarita, the boxing program is quite different. The activity offers plenty of mental and physical benefits to those living with Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s as it enhances their everyday activities and lifestyle. This is the goal that Gary Ballard, trainer and former World Super Middle Weight Championship Fighter, keeps in mind while working with the residents each week. Exercises used in the program are based on traditional boxing drills and designed to empower the body and challenge the mind while improving overall strength. Ballard modifies the exercises to fit each resident’s capabilities while finding ways to motivate each individual to push beyond perceived boundaries.
“My priority for every class is to see the residents happy and engaged,” said Ballard. “Since we first started there has definitely been a change in their abilities and strength, as most were hesitant or unable to do the exercises in the beginning. I’ve been working with them for a while now, and I can see how the movements are benefiting their physical health by keeping them active. The same can be said for how the interaction with others is improving their well-being by helping them to engage with the world around them. For many of the residents, health conditions prevent them from doing what they once loved or even rob them of the ability to connect with others. If I can help them to regain a small piece of that back then I’ve done my job.”
Every Thursday at 10:15 a.m. Ballard can be found working with the 15 residents who regularly attend his class. For many of these residents standing is not an option, but that isn’t a problem for Ballard. He can be seen moving from person to person providing the individualized attention and encouragement needed to put up a fist or block a punch. The activities and drills are similar and repetitive, which helps the residents feel comfortable while reducing the frustration and anxiety that can come with trying to keep up with a variety of moves and changes. Ballard keeps things simple and does what he can to lighten the mood by telling jokes and tossing out friendly “trash talk” when needed. This is particularly meaningful for residents like Russ Walvoord, as Ballard’s classes have allowed him to rekindle his formerly active lifestyle. His wife Lori, who also resides at the community in independent living, makes regular visits to see Russ in memory care. Lori values the moments she gets to spend with Russ and is pleased with the way the boxing program has enabled him to regain a piece of himself.
“Russ was always very active before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and even afterward while he was able,” said Lori Walvoord. “Seeing him participate in the boxing program has been something special, as it has given Russ a piece of himself back. There are not many activities left that Russ is still able to do, but he can still throw a punch or two at Gary every Thursday. While I have no way of knowing, I feel the boxing program is an outlet that helps Russ release his frustration. There’s no denying that after the class he is always in a cheerful mood and more engaging. After one particular class, Russ talked for a bit about how he had a ‘match’ with Gary and was really able to get him. It’s moments like those that I am thankful for, when I can hear in Russ’ voice that he is happy and still himself, even if he can’t always express it.”
“When I first started coming to the community for the program I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Ballard. “Each class was a new experience, but with time I learned how to adapt my coaching style to fit the needs of the residents. In many ways this program has made me a better trainer overall, and I couldn’t be more thankful. Knowing that each week I have the opportunity to walk in and lift someone up and bring a smile to their face is truly something special.”
As a trainer and former championship fighter with his own gym, working with the residents at Park Terrace is very different from what Ballard does on a daily basis. However, it is the simplicity of being able to encourage someone in the moment without a specific long-term outcome which has touched Ballard and brings him back each week.
“We’re thrilled to see the boxing program continue to grow and benefit our residents,” said Jerry Church, executive director of Park Terrace. “Every great boxer has a story about how he or she achieved victory, and our residents are no different, as they are able to overcome hurdles and shape their own triumphs in the ring. At Park Terrace, we are dedicated to making sure each resident has the opportunity to live life to the fullest, and the boxing program is just one of many examples of how we do that.”