“People do things for different reasons, no one thing is the magic answer.”
Lorna Wyatt, is the U3APP tutor for the class, “Exercise to feel well and be active.”
Physical fitness has developed into a big industry, is there much competition between the various gymnasiums, in respect to their approach these days?
“Yes, like all things, there are both good and bad aspects. For instance, the gym that I go to, is now doing classes for “our” age group and that is a big plus.” This is happening more and more. When Lorna first joined the class, the fitness instructors were not that interested in the older participants. However, they were “pushed to include older age members and currently, the instructors now enjoy working with us.” The fitness industry also includes Pilates and yoga, thereby attracting a more diverse membership.
Why is it, do you think, that the ageing population has now been accepted into gyms?
“Well, classes are attracting large numbers of members, for instance at U3APP, it doesn’t matter how many exercise classes we provide, they fill up in the first 10 minutes.” Lorna observes that, “it is because our age group has realised a few things. We are going to live longer than we thought and want to be as active as we can in the time left. We want to feel well, so the demand is enormous.” There is also a social aspect, especially through the U3A membership.
Lorna refers to “huge variations in what is called Pilates.” She firmly believes that “the unfortunate thing about exercise, is that if you don’t feel the muscles work, some discomfort, and some fatigue, it is probably not doing much. That is the sort of thing that I am interested in.”
Lorna swiftly corrected this interviewer’s perhaps misguided observations when walking along the beach, eyes on the sea, horizon or perhaps a sunset, that the majority of walkers seem to be more interested in looking at their phone, counting steps, heads down, with serious expression.
“People do things for different reasons, no one thing is the magic answer. Not the gym, not Pilates, not walking, not yoga. In fact, it is the mixture of activities that works well.” Lorna explains further, “your kind of walking is good for mental health, and if you are walking at a reasonable pace, there is a certain amount of fitness that you are building up.”
However, somebody else is walking at a fast pace and checking their steps. They are building their cardio strength, the strength of their heart, that is what they are concentrating on and that is also recommended. There are various ways of doing cardio work. “You can swim, run, cycle for instance.” They may also do some form of meditation at some other time, “thereby covering their bases, differently.”
During the Covid 19 pandemic, Lorna ran classes online, they were well attended, “more in fact than ever attended F2F.” However, once F2F classes were permitted, Lorna dropped the online class for a couple of reasons. “One being that I could not see what people were doing, and I was worried they might hurt themselves. Some did, in fact. But also, many attend the class for the social aspect. They come, catch up, chat, make friends and maybe have a coffee afterwards, they also encourage each other.”
How do you manage the aspect of encouragement or competitiveness?
“Ok, so, I am very clear about my expectations. My bottom line is that people come. That is the first thing. The second is that I evaluate classes at the end of the year, how people feel and if the class is meeting their needs. The classes are for the people who participate, they are not for me. The class needs to be enjoyable enough, just to come. Even if it is difficult, they improve, and this encourages everyone. We will have some dropouts if the class is a bit too hard, for some reason.”
Importantly, if a member is unable to get down on the floor and up again (including this interviewer!) this is a cut-off point. Some may have had joint replacements or suffer from Parkinson’s disease or other conditions. In response to competitiveness, ”I do not encourage that, I don’t say anything, but it happens anyway. Some may look around at everyone else, perhaps thinking, if they can do that, surely, I can do it too. I tell them always, just to do as much as you can. If you need to stop, then just stop. Do not do anything that doesn’t feel right.” Lorna likes to ensure that she provides a range of exercises. “There is always an easier, middle, or harder way of doing things, there is no shame in that.”
Lorna is South African, emigrating to Australia in 1986 with her husband and two children. She has always been interested in sport, “I was always a physical and sporty child.” When it came to choosing a career, Lorna was encouraged to take up medicine, “however I am not a great studier, I like to learn by doing, so I became a physiotherapist, and have loved doing this as a career.” Lorna later, also obtained a Master of Management degree.
Growing up in South Africa at that time?
Lorna responded emphatically, “it was dreadful!” The government was nationalistic, an apartheid Government. “So, you were brought up with propaganda and to believe that apartheid was a good thing … but having a white skin is about privilege. Your schooling, healthcare, your housing, standard of living, earnings, are all dictated by the colour of your skin.” It was only when Lorna and others of her generation matured, that they started to realise that there is a whole group of people, a much bigger group in fact, who do not share these same privileges. At university, Lorna became even more aware and participated in anti-apartheid rallies. But “the turning point” was an overseas trip with her mother. It was “an absolute shock … like a house of cards, you start plucking at one then … the house starts to fall down,” as she observed that the rest of the world functioned without apartheid.
Lorna’s most influential position before coming to Australia, was in a school in Soweto for black children with cerebral palsy. Lorna laughs, ”so I am now, one of the few white people in a school where the children and most of the staff and teachers are black. We would have lunch together and chat, perhaps about our respective weekends.” Some of their accounts were “horrifying, unbelievable.” The broader, white population seemed unaware of the devastating impact of apartheid on the wider black population. For Lorna, being a physiotherapist in this school was “an amazing learning experience for me,” working alongside the chief physiotherapist.
Like many other South Africans at that time, Lorna and her husband were “agitating to leave South Africa permanently.” Having little joy from the British Embassy, by chance, a friend informed that physiotherapists were on the ‘job shortage list’ for Australia. The visa process would take only about six months. With a little persuasion, Lorna’s husband agreed to emigrate to Australia. This worked out well, as he was working with the De Beers Diamond Company, which had an office in Melbourne. “So, we had the easiest immigration process, even our fares were paid for.” They have lived in East St Kilda since then.
Having accumulated three years of valuable experience working with children with cerebral palsy, Lorna obtained a position with the Spastic Society, in Pascoe Vale. However, she recalls being “shocked,” in that their work in South Africa was far more advanced for children with cerebral palsy. Western Australia and Queensland were “much much better” than services provided in Victoria, “it was dreadful.”
During her induction, Lorna was taken to the classroom. There was a six year old little girl, falling out of her chair and screaming. The physiotherapist advised, “they must learn.” No assistance was provided. When Lorna asked about equipment, she was told they needed to “throw it out” and there were no funds left to purchase any, “next year’s budget maybe,” was the response. The attitude being that the children needed to learn how to hold their heads up, sit up and so forth, without aids to assist them. Over time, with the assistance of other trained staff, “we worked our way together through this and I learnt a lot.”
Lorna’s next position was with the Royal Victorian Institute for The Blind, where she worked for six years. This was a “centre of excellence, such a joy.” She became the chief physio, with four other physios in the department. The team, as in speech therapist, occupational therapists, orientation specialists, physios and teachers, “all really knew what they were talking about for that population.”
There were two disparate groups. In one group, the children had been born blind, in the second group, were children who had become blind but in all other respects, were physically fine. However, understandably, they were “extraordinarily timid … as soon as they try to move, they’ll bump into something and hurt themselves.” Lorna developed and shared ideas as to how to best manage this, “we had amazing results.”
For instance, one little boy aged about 3 years old, who was born blind, was referred to the Assessment Centre. He was “rocking, shouting, biting, crying.” He was physically able. “We set ourselves up as a team to work with him. He wasn’t walking, perhaps like an 18 month old, hanging onto the furniture, he couldn’t walk independently, he was also not talking.”
He couldn’t walk because he was blind?
“Yes, that is it, this is how they are, and they should not be like that, but they are timid. We assessed him as a team and developed a special program for him. At six years old, he went to school, a normal boy.”
There were also children who had cerebral palsy, some were intellectually impaired. But with relevant, quality equipment, and the interventions required, they achieved good results. “It was wonderful work by the team, a joy to work with them all.” The Royal Victorian Institute for The Blind has now been merged into Vision Australia. Lorna does not endorse this amalgamation, believing it has decreased the opportunity for the development of team expertise.
Lorna completed a Master of Management degree. Her first subsequent position was with the Department of Human Services, Specialist Children’s Services, responsible for providing appropriate services for children under the age of 6 years old. Lorna had subsequent management roles with Community Health, which included the management of disability services, early intervention programs as well as aged care and health promotion.
Her last and perhaps, “top job,” was as senior manager of the Red Cross Blood Service in Western Australia, then in Victoria and Tasmania. Interestingly, Lorna comments with some humour that the Blood Bank in Victoria “was the black sheep of the family, compared to other states, it was underperforming… but we turned it around, it is pretty good now.” Lorna and her husband then lived for four years in Canada, “but that is another story!”
Lorna joined U3APP 10 years ago. “Well in retirement, you are always looking for something. I joined the choir, and I really loved it.” They were looking for tutors and it was suggested that I could run a group with “gentle exercise.” Lorna pondered on this having worked specifically with children who were blind or with cerebral palsy. “But I had a background in anatomy and physiology, and was familiar with how people’s bodies work. That was ten years ago now!” The classes have changed enormously over the years.
The Royal Commission into Aged Care, “was a turning point for me. Older people in the program were dependent and bedridden but sometimes were intellectually fine. I thought, we can surely avoid that.” Lorna subsequently made “big changes” to her classes, focusing on exercises “to feel well and be active.” To do “just that, at whatever level people can do, be it as much or as little as you can do, but at least to be as independent as you can…that’s what my classes are like now.”
Lorna attended the U3APP Book Group for a number of years, “I loved this group, it was so lovely to discuss books with others.” Searching for even more intellectual stimulation, Lorna was drawn to Jim Pribble’s classes on Zoom. “It is fantastic, absolutely wonderful.” Lorna is also attending Poetry Appreciation with Nancy Corbett. “Again, I never read poetry, or have understood it” but that is what U3A does, it introduces you to new subjects that you would never have thought of doing. “Nancy is a wonderful teacher.”
Lorna enjoys walking her two little dogs, she has two adult children. She is also occupied with assisting the Greens Party and was on the campaign committee for Macnamara during the federal election. This takes up a lot of time. “I am just trying to do my bit, I don’t feel like it is very big, it’s like assisting, in little pieces.”
Lorna acknowledges that she has “a lot of energy.” She is motivated to work out solutions, “to get things going.” The year starts and people come to the classes, they may be frail … and then you wouldn’t recognise them a year or two later. It’s amazing, it’s not just that their bodies are strong, it’s the confidence that they have now, you know, to do stuff.”
We are living longer, and we want to live better?
“That’s right. We don’t want to live on the couch.” U3APP waiting lists for exercise classes validates this view, and continues to fuel Lorna’s energy and aspirations, for others.
Interviewed by Felicity May