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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

At 102, she leads fitness classes 4 days a week: ‘When I get old, I’ll quit’

By Kellie B. Gormly Washington Post

About a dozen women have gathered for their fitness class as their instructor guides them through the moves.

“Backstroke!” Jean Bailey directs from her chair, raising her arms high, as the women of Elk Ridge Village Senior Living in Omaha quickly begin arm rotations.

Everyone puts in top effort, as Bailey expects.

Bailey, who is 102 and lives in the facility’s independent-living quarters, has been teaching the class four times a week in the hallway of the second floor for about three years. She has no desire to slow down.

“When I get old, I’ll quit,” said Bailey, who has lived at Elk Ridge for about 14 years.

Some of her regulars have arthritis that limits their movements, but they can do the stretching exercises comfortably and benefit from them, said Bailey, who herself often uses a walker.

Still, she says, she’s a tough coach.

“They tease me and said I’m mean, because when we do exercises, I want them to do it right and use your muscles,” she said.

But not too mean. People wouldn’t continue to show up if they weren’t enjoying it.

“The girls seem to realize what I’m going to do for them,” she said. “It’s for me, too.”

One man used to attend the sessions, but he has passed away. Now, it is all women.

She started the exercise classes in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic started, and people were isolated in their rooms.

At the time she was 99 years old, a senior even among the residents at Elk Ridge. But she was not intimidated by the younger ages of the residents around her.

She wanted to stay active, she said, and she’s always been good at motivating people, so she invited her neighbors to bring chairs out into the hallway for some socially distanced, simple exercises.

“I really feel that if you don’t keep your mind and body busy, then why are you here?” Bailey said.

The residents enjoyed it so much, they never stopped.

The sessions begin at 9:45 a.m., which gives participants time to get dressed and eat breakfast. Bailey provides the 30-minute classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and begins with an opening prayer. The group does about 20 kinds of stretches for both the upper and lower body, including neck rolls, pointing and flexing feet, and bending over to touch the ground.

“You move every part of your body, absolutely, from your hands to your toes,” Bailey said.

The classes have deepened the friendships among the women.

“We’ve gotten pretty close up there on our floor,” she said. “One of us would do something for anybody. We really keep track of each other.”

Phyllis Black, 87, lives down the hall from Jean and enjoys the exercise classes; if she skips them, she feels stiff, Black said.

When Black moved into Elk Ridge about 3 1/2 years ago, Bailey greeted her with some home-baked cookies and two tomatoes from a family member’s garden.

Bailey often treats attendees to baked goods after sessions when someone has a birthday. At this age, she said, all birthdays are a big deal.

“She’s a very nice neighbor, and she’s a good friend also,” Black said about Bailey. “She’s very talented.”

Bailey’s longevity and resilience come from a life of some hardship. Born in 1921 in Wyoming, she grew up during the Great Depression. One of five children, Bailey’s mother gave her away to another family when she was 3, and she grew up an only child with a father who worked on a railroad. Her family lived in Iowa, then Nebraska, where Bailey has lived since.

As a teenager, Bailey modeled for J.C. Penney. She married in 1942, but her husband, Loren Bailey, died in 1989. They had three children: son Bruce, daughter Pennyrae, and daughter Patty, who passed away at age 55 from cancer. She has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

When her children were young, Bailey was a stay-at-home mother, but later became a florist - a practice she still enjoys as a hobby.

She buys artificial flowers and makes bouquets for the clubhouse and some residents. She also helps to deal during blackjack games.

Laura Stuart, who until recently was the lifestyle director at Elk Ridge, calls her the “queen bee.”

“She brings her expertise in the floral arrangements and is always doing beautiful arrangements,” Stuart said. “She brings that to us, and it’s just a godsend that she’s still here with us to even do such an intricate type of floral arrangement.”

She said Bailey does everything with her whole heart.

At Elk Ridge - which has about 145 residents in independent living and about 205 in assisted living and memory care - residents can participate in fitness activities including a walking club, tai chi and working out in a fitness room. But Bailey’s ladies seem to prefer her class because of her warm and fun personality, and the gentleness of the stretches for people who have mobility challenges, says Sean Tran, operations director at Elk Ridge.

“More than anything, her general outlook on life … is just remarkable,” he said about Bailey. “She’s the nicest, most thoughtful, caring person that I probably ever met.

“Nothing is going to stop her,” Tran said. “She’s going to keep going, no matter what.”

Bailey, he said, inspires people, because they look at her and think: “If she can do this at 102, I can do this at my age, whatever it is.”

Bailey - who volunteered at a hospital for more than 30 years in the imaging department - isn’t sure what the formula is for her longevity. She said eating a healthy diet and staying active probably has played a significant part.

“I really don’t know,” said Bailey, who still washes and irons her own clothes. “I guess it’s the fact that God isn’t ready for me. I have to keep busy.

“I don’t believe in just sitting and watching TV,” Bailey said.

But age does have its privileges.

“I’m pretty good at naps at this point,” she said with a laugh.