Senior Swim Hours Expands to 14 City Pools

By Jeff Mays on July 9, 2012 5:03pm 

Seniors enjoying Thomas Jefferson pool in East Harlem.
Seniors enjoying Thomas Jefferson pool in East Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — At the age of 90, Lettice Graham says she is pain-free, doesn't take any medicine, goes to the doctor once per year — only at the doctor's request — and has a 64-year-old beau.

Graham said she owes her good health and young boyfriend to the hour per day she puts in swimming at city pools.  Five days a week she's in the water with the Harlem Honeys and Bears, a synchronized senior swim team.

"He didn't know I was as old as I am," Graham, a retired telephone operator, said about her "gentleman friend" with a mischievous grin on her face. "I would like to remind everyone that age is just a number," she said, shortly before putting her skills on display at Thomas Jefferson Pool in East Harlem.

City officials couldn't agree more.

To make city pools more accessible to seniors, they expanded a pilot program on Monday called Senior Swim that reserves a couple of hours at city pools just for seniors. After launching with seven outdoor pools last year, the program has expanded to 14 pools across the five boroughs.

It runs through Aug. 24.

The program kicked off in East Harlem as part of Age-friendly New York City, an initiative designed at making the city more livable for senior citizens.

When it comes to pools, seniors, many of whom come for exercise, may not feel as comfortable with excited and screaming kids splashing around.

"On day one, 156 seniors showed up at Thomas Jefferson," said Annika Holder, assistant Parks Department commissioner for public programs, of last year's first Senior Swim.

"Seniors who hadn't been to the pool in years were coming and bringing their friends."

East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said she was proud that the idea "came from the community" and that it allowed "seniors to age with dignity and grace."

"They wanted dedicated pool hours and space so they could exercise on their own," said Mark-Viverito.

William Smalls, 65, a retired lab technician, said swimming and being a part of the Honeys and Bears helps to keep him young. He noticed the group when he started going to the recreation center to help a friend battling diabetes put together an exercise routine.

"I saw all these seniors swimming and doing fantastic things. No one had aches and pains," Smalls said. "I said to myself: 'This is the fountain of youth.'"

And there are other benefits, said Commissioner for the Department for the Aging Lilliam Barrios-Paoli.

"It gives us the opportunity to see each other and talk with each other," she said.

Before the Honeys and Bears took to the pool, other seniors frolicked in the water. Some swam laps, others floated and talked with friends.

"It's exercise and it's fun," said Janet Hurt, 68, a retired nurse. "It keeps me supple. I still have 100 years ahead of me."

Once in the water, the Honeys and Bears, with coach Oliver Foote, 63, shouting out directions, performed a routine known as "The Pyramid." Nine women floated in the shape of a pyramid. A group of four men helped the women, heads touching, feet out, float in a circle shape.

Foote said the group has 41 members ages 65 to 100, although he noted that the one centenarian had to stop swimming recently due to arthritis. The group has members that use walkers and wheelchairs, but you can't tell when they get in the water, he said.

"I would tell any senior to come out and join the Honeys and Bears and stay active instead of just sitting at home watching television," Foote said.

Lettice Graham, the oldest active member, who also line dances and takes yoga, said swimming is by far the most helpful activity when it comes to keeping her youthful.

"I am the oldest one, but I feel like the youngest," she said.

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