Who Is The Woman Who Helps Older Austinites Stay Socially Connected?

Aug 8, 2019

Becky Rhodes logged onto Facebook a couple years ago and saw a friend's post asking for help with a new project that would offer exercise and education classes for older adults. 

"Sign me up!" said the then-68-year-old retiree.

The friend, Amy Temperley, hired Rhodes to talk with homebound adults over the phone about gratitude. Temperley and her husband, Damien, had noticed a gap in activities for Austin's aging population and decided to try to fix that through their company, Aging is Cool

"It is very hard when you’re a senior and you’re living by yourself, just to get motivated sometimes to get out and do things," Rhodes says. "So it's a great way to keep seniors connected. I'm a senior, so I get it."

Rhodes had watched for 25 years as her father took care of her mother, who had Alzheimer's disease, without much social support.

"It was hard not just for her. It was probably harder for him, because he was not able to get a break," she says. "There wasn't a lot available for that."  

The older population in the Austin area has rapidly increased as more and more retirees move here. Rhodes wanted other folks to know about what the Temperleys are doing for this growing demographic, so she nominated them for our Hi, Who Are You? project.

Damien Temperley leads an abs class for older adults at Balance Dance Studios on South Lamar.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

The Temperleys have been helping others for the better part of their careers. Damien's experience as a fitness instructor for older adults complements Amy's 30-year career in social services for seniors. Over time, they noticed two things: People don't seem to care about aging until they're part of the over-50 population, and aging well doesn't just mean exercising two or three times a week.

"Social isolation is identified as probably one of the biggest health crises that is going to impact this generation of older adults," Amy says. "It impacts your physical, emotional, cognitive well-being, and it's crucial that we find ways to give people opportunities to interact."

And that's exactly what the Temperleys do. 

Every week, 22 instructors help the Temperleys teach 150 classes. Some of these are workshops on pop culture, history or the arts taught at rec centers or retirement communities in Travis, Williamson, Bastrop and Hays counties. But their most well-attended classes happen at the Balance Dance Studios on South Lamar. 

Three days a week, Damien instructs nearly 30 older adults to lift weights, throw punches and practice fall-prevention techniques, keeping time to songs like "Eye of the Tiger." Between exercises, participants take breaks to interact with their neighbors. According to Amy, the socialization continues even after the 45-minute class ends. 

"They take care of each other and take meals when somebody's sick and worry if you don't show up to class," she says. "What happens after class is almost as important as what's happening during."

Gladys Long, 93, says classes at Balance Dance Studios help fill a void that opened after her husband died.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

Gladys Long, 93, uses a walker to get around, but that doesn't stop her from working out or participating in yoga classes. She started seeking out social activities after her three kids moved away and her husband died.

"We danced several times a week and we were in lots of other activities. Everything diminished, so that's when I found Aging is Cool," she says. "It has filled the void of a lot of things that I was doing." 

UT Austin Sociology Professor Debra Umberson says social connection is important to healthy aging.

"It's very predictive of overall health and well-being and even mortality risk," says Umberson, who also directs the UT Population Research Center and is co-director of the Texas Aging and Longevity Center.

But, as Umberson points out, it's harder for folks to stay socially engaged as they age, for reasons like illness or limited transportation options, especially if they move to more rural areas. 

Amy wants to bring Aging is Cool to the Hill Country, which is also seeing an increase in retirees. She says these areas are in need of more modern social activities for adults over 50. She'd also like to explore a virtual reality program for folks with dementia, which studies show is helpful.

But what's also helpful, Amy says, is keeping a healthy perspective on aging. 

"Things hurt and sometimes we have losses and stuff isn't so awesome," she says, but "by continuing to learn and grow and contribute and laugh and have fun and make friends, it can be cool."

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