(Photo by Melissa Tabeek for boston.com)
At the Boston Young Men’s Christian Union Gym and Athletic Club on Boylston Street, a group of people 50 and older gathers every Friday morning for an hour or two of exercise. They are aided by a certified personal trainer and trained volunteers. Unlike most people, though, they don’t have the luxury of skipping the gym when they don’t feel like going.
Their quality of life depends on it.
They are members of AIDS Action Committee’s Positive Aging/Lasting Strength Program. Most are HIV-positive. They are among the nearly 40 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in Massachusetts who are over 50, according to the state Department of Public Health. That percentage is expected to grow to 60 percent by 2020, said Emerson Miller, program manager of PALS.
PALS is one of a few programs geared to this growing population, according to Miller. "I don’t know of any other programming that’s specifically dealing with the 50 and above population,” he said.
On a recent Friday, the social atmosphere in the exercise room was subdued at first, then became livelier as the number of participants grew from two to nine. The average number of members who attend varies from 10 to 20, usually less in the summer months, said Greg Cloutier, head of the exercise program.
The room is spacious, roughly the size of a basketball court, with over 30 weight machines. Mirrors run the length of the white walls, and fluorescent lights reflect off the dark blue floor. Upstairs, there is a smaller room with 20 machines that members can use for a cardio warm-up before they come downstairs to work out.
Mitchell Drucker has been coming on Friday mornings for nine months. He doesn’t exercise for enjoyment, but boasts as he pats his stomach, “You can see results.”
Although he prefers exercising his own way to Cloutier’s, he still tries to push himself when prompted by a volunteer.
“See what I mean?” he said as he simultaneously laughed and struggled with a wrist curl. “If you’re doing it the correct way, it’s much worse.”
Drucker works out at a different gym during the week but says he prefers Fridays at BYMCU because of the social interaction. “Everyone is really friendly. It’s always great doing something you don’t like, with support," he said.
Sheba Barboza welcomes the challenges. She is a wiry and ebullient 75-year old woman with tight curls held off her forehead by a black headband.
“I needed an exercise program,” Barboza said, adding that she likes the supervision from Cloutier and other volunteers, as well as the social interaction. “I’m just so happy to be here because Greg and everyone is so encouraging.”
Cloutier, with 28 years of personal training experience and 10 years of experience at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, has been running the exercise classes under PALS since the beginning. The program is designed to empower, rather than enable, members, Cloutier said.
When members begin, they are instructed by Cloutier, but quickly move to self-directed training.
Cloutier said the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s prompted him to get involved with AAC, based in Jamaica Plain. In the throes of that epidemic, he lost friends, clients and acquaintances -- “key characters in a novel that aren’t supposed to die,” he said. Volunteering was a way to turn the negatives into positives.
PALS members say they benefit from being part of a group. The weekly class gives them a chance to share tips on how they manage their lives and also counters isolation, Cloutier said.
“It’s a place where they can talk about things they might not be able to talk about somewhere else,” he said.
AAC was able to meet the HIV-positive 50-and-above population’s needs when the agency was asked by Tufts Health Plan Foundation to create programming for seniors. Miller initially wrote and was awarded a grant from Tufts to serve people 60 and older, some of them HIV positive. In PALS’ second year of funding from Tufts, the age was lowered to 50.
The lowering of that age threshold was crucial, Miller said, since those who are HIV- positive may experience an acceleration of the aging process. Illnesses, bone densities, and other health issues typical of geriatrics 70 to 75 years old are found in some HIV- positive 50-year olds.
PALS combats that by offering the weekly exercise classes, as well as nutritional consultations and follow-ups, weekly support groups, and a monthly educational forum, said Miller.
With the program recently receiving third-year funding, Miller said he is grateful that PALS has been able to continue, despite federal funding cuts to HIV/AIDS programs.
"Obviously, this is a program we’re invested in," he said.
This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Melissa Tabeek, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (firstname.lastname@example.org), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.