F. Castro / SFVS

Hope Escalante, 94, participates in the Stretch Aerobics class at Las Palmas Park.

Hope Escalante stretches her arms, moves her legs and keeps up with the rest of the seniors in the Stretch Aerobics class at Las Palmas Park in the City of San Fernando.

“If I sit too much, I stiffen up,” says the soon to be 95-year-old.

But that’s not an issue here for Escalante, who attends the class along with her daughter, Sylvia Perez, 71.

“I come here to exercise and stay out of the house,” said Escalante, who attends exercise classes on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and plays bingo at San Fernando Park on Tuesdays. “If I wasn’t here, I’d be at home feeling sorry for myself. You stay home and you don’t see people, pretty soon you’re dead ‘cause you have no other interests.”

“We come here and we make new friends,” chimes in Perez. “After we exercise we go and eat. You get to see friends.”

So week after week, they come here to stretch and wiggle their toes and hips as instructor Deborah Rothschild leads them and the class through a series of moves designed to get their heart rates up and keep them up.

The idea, she tells them, “is to generate energy and balance.”

The same could be said about exercising and connecting with other people there.

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), research suggests a positive correlation between social interaction and health. People who engage in productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, helping them maintain well-being and improve cognitive function.

“The misery and suffering caused by chronic loneliness are very real and warrant attention,” said Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

In explaining the results of studies noting how loneliness impacts human health,  “as a social species, we are accountable to help our lonely children, parents, neighbors, and even strangers in the same way we would treat ourselves. Treating loneliness is our collective responsibility,” Cacioppo said.

Keeping Seniors Active, Engaged

Juan Salas, community services supervisor for the City of San Fernando, understands this and that’s why his mission is to keep coming up with activities for seniors at Las Palmas Park.

“The idea is to keep them as busy and active as possible because of the happier and more fulfilling life they’ll have,” Salas said. “Being here they get to interact with other people.”

Some 60 men and women come to Las Palmas Park every day. The number increases to between 100-110 on Wednesday, the busiest day for activities.

They eat there, watch movies, play trivia games and bingo, practice music, shoot pool or simply “people watch.” There is also dancing and karaoke, and plenty of opportunities for conversation, reminiscence and camaraderie.

All with the intention of keeping them “engaged and not alone at home,” Salas said.

He knows that many of these seniors live on their own, having grown children long gone from the house. And if they are not at the park, they could simply wither away in their loneliness.

“That’s bad, mentally and physically as well,” notes Salas.

A League of her Own

Virginia Barragan also attends the Stretch Aerobics class. She played softball from age 11 through 48, and even played the sport professionally for three years in the women’s league featured in the movie “A League of their Own.”

Now 84, Barragan’s always been active, and staying at home watching TV is not an option.

“I can lift my arms, get up from chairs easily,” she said of the benefits of attending the class. “I can live.”

She travels often — Mexico, Greece and Boston just recently. “I walked with my backpack. I couldn’t do that if I didn’t do this. They get me in shape,” said Barragan, who is a ball of energy.

“I’m physical and this helps me keep safe.”

Blood Pressure and Your Health

Exercising also helps to stabilize your blood pressure, which is very important to keeping healthy in old age, according to Northridge Hospital Cardiologist Sam Kalioundji.

He said up to 80 percent of people over 60 have high blood pressure, and if not controlled it could lead to all sorts of problems such as including heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and dementia.

Normal blood pressure is 120/80. For those in their 70s and above, Kalioundji allows up to 140/65 because of the influence of other medications.

He recommends checking your blood pressure once a week or every two weeks to keep track of it and prevent problems since high blood pressure is considered a “silent killer” that often comes on unannounced.

“Some people may have headaches, ringing in ears, but in general, people don’t know until they check it,” Kalioundji said.

On Nov. 4, an agency at Las Palmas Park will provide free blood pressure check-ups — another of the services seniors get at the facility.

But the biggest benefit is friendship and feeling useful among people you know and care about.

That’s the purpose Rita Torres has found. She shows up Monday-Friday to help register seniors for the meal program.

“I like it. I get to talk to people and not stay home and stare off at the four walls,” said Torres, 75.

“It takes your mind off what hurts you,” she adds.

She and husband Cuauhtemoc Torres, who is in charge of the flag salute and the prayer every day, volunteer at the park to serve others.

“It gives us something to do, to be in on the gossip,” Torres says.

And a good amount of gossip helps keep one healthy.

For more information about the senior classes and programs at Las Palmas Park, call (818) 898-7340.