More than 40% of older adults in the United States are obese, leading to preventable illnesses like heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer. In Black Americans, the obesity rate is nearly 50%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anne Hays, a clinical instructor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, saw an opportunity to make a difference in this population — and get her graduate students working outside the classroom.
With help from Pitt’s Community Engagement Centers and other School of Education leaders, Hays (EDUC ’04G,’07G) and six students in the Evidence-Based Health Program Planning course partnered with the Homewood-Brushton YMCA to establish the Healthy Homewood Project. The 10-week program addressed obesity and chronic illnesses in older adults through fitness and wellness education in Homewood, a predominantly Black Pittsburgh neighborhood.
Throughout the spring semester, students conducted research to understand community members’ needs and prevalent health disparities.
They also spent two hours each week at the YMCA working with more than 30 participants to check vitals, conduct weigh-ins and lead discussions about mindful eating and other healthy behaviors. These talks were followed by smaller breakout sessions where individuals set weekly goals as well as a group exercise class taught by 73-year-old Pittsburgh native and Homewood celebrity Roland Ford (pictured in white above).
Ford has instructed YMCA dance and fitness classes since March 2007 and joined with Healthy Homewood upon learning about its mission.
“I appreciate this type of programming where we can inform, educate and engage other seniors around the importance and value of nutrition,” said Ford, who personally brought many participants on board. “I love that we had the opportunity to learn and share this information.”
He credited Healthy Homewood with helping older adults with another significant health challenge, too: loneliness.
“This program gave people a chance to be more social during the pandemic,” said Ford. “It developed friendships and partnerships that didn’t exist prior, and I hope it can be duplicated and continue.”
Just as Hays hoped, the Pitt students benefitted from the activities as well. Cyndi Standaert is a nontraditional health and physical activity, programming and promotion major who said the project “was the first hands-on experience I’ve ever had. Dr. Hayes knew there was a need for this program, and it was amazing.”
A former swim coach, she followed her family to Pittsburgh in 2017 after spending 20 years in Seattle. In addition to attending Pitt, she now also cares for her elderly father — a responsibility that gave her a greater appreciation for Healthy Homewood.
“I’ve watched my father grow older and need support,” said Standaert. “Older adults in all communities require connection, whether increased physical activity or social connection. Working with the older population in Homewood, I see the need and want to be part of the solution.”
Healthy Homewood also helped Standaert discover her purpose and obtain an internship that aligns with her interests. This summer, she is working as a wellness assistant at Providence Point, a retirement facility, where she plans to create and execute similar programs.
“What’s special about doing work like this is that the students truly engage, and it gives them ownership of projects which they thrive off,” said Hays.
Healthy Homewood concluded in April with a health fair, presentations from graduate students and with participants receiving certificates of completion and an extended two-month YMCA membership.
“The knowledge and gifts gained from conversing with and learning from this community have given me more confidence as I go forward working with older adults,” said Standaert. “I can honestly tell you that my life is forever changed from working with this group.”
— Kara Henderson, photography by Aimee Obidzinski