Local | Senior Lifestyle

Elder Rehab, Russian-style, aids local senior

Yevgenia Kiseleva, who learned gymnastics in an orphanage in Latvia, displays her agility at age 77. (Courtesy Sharon Arkin)

Searching for a program that helps people with memory loss stay physically and mentally active, Natalija Kuznecova had one very specific requirement: she needed to find a program with a Russian speaker for  mother, 77-year-old Yevgenia Kiseleva, who has been in the United States only four months and speaks no English. They were happy to discover Elder Rehab at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, the only program in the area with a Russian-speaking trainer.

Elder Rehab, under the direction of psychologist Sharon Arkin, Psy.D., matches memory-impaired older adults with a University of Arizona intern or volunteer who supervises physical exercise, memory and language activities and interactive games. The program provides 10 to 12 weeks of twice-weekly, two-hour sessions.

“Yevgenia would have a hard time doing the exercises without having someone who speaks Russian,” says Ester Yushuvayeva, 18, Elder Rehab’s Russian-speaking volunteer. Yushuvayeva is a public health major at the UA and would like to be an occupational therapist. Although she is a volunteer, she hopes to enter a UA internship program that will give her one credit toward her major. She and Kiseleva had a practice run to see if she could translate the exercise instructions into Russian in a way that Kiseleva could understand before formally starting the program. “Yevgenia has only been in the program since September, but I have already seen some progress,” says Yushuvayeva.

Yushuvayeva was a baby when her family immigrated to the United States from Uzbekistan in 1999. They came first to New York, but moved to Arizona because the family had friends in Phoenix. Her father started an adult daycare center in Phoenix for seniors who needed somewhere they could get care, participate in various activities, have meals and socialize. This stoked Yushuvayeva’s interest in a health care profession because she often helped people at the center with exercises and games. Although her parents learned to speak English, they have always spoken Russian at home so Yushuvayeva and her two brothers (ages 21 and 7) have been able to continue to speak their native language.

Being Jewish also helped inspire Yushuvayeva’s desire to help people. “This has been taught to me by my whole family, but my grandmother, my father’s mother, was a big influence because she was a nurse and taught me about the morals and ethics of helping people,” she says. In Uzbekistan, she says, her family practiced Judaism in the privacy of their home because they could not publicly acknowledge that they were Jewish.

“My mother has been happier since she has been in the program, and says she feels she is needed because she considers that she is helping Ester with her Russian,” says Kuznecova.

Kuznecova and her 22-year-old daughter have been in the United States for 15 years. They came first to Chicago and moved to Tucson 7 years ago. Her mother lives with her. Kuznecova is a nurse and is studying, through a University of Cincinnati program, to be a nurse practitioner. “Helping people has always been my goal, and I am very thankful that the Elder Rehab program is helping my mother to improve both physically and mentally,” she says. “I would recommend this program to others who need it.”

“Initially Yevgenia did not understand the purpose of a game or remember what comes next in the game, and now she is more often remembering what we talked about, even from one week to the next,” Yushuvayeva explains. “Sometimes she wants to skip the physical activities but I get her to continue with the exercises by keeping up a conversation, perhaps asking her about her life and this distracts her from thinking about the exercises.”

During these conversations the 77-year-old said she has always been athletic.  Her parents died when she was a child and she was raised in an orphanage, where she learned acrobatics and sometimes performed for an audience with the other children.  She also said she was a good student, to whom other children came for help, and she became the lead mechanical engineer at a shoe factory in Latvia.

Along with conversations about her life, Yushuvayeva gets Kiseleva to participate in other mental stimulation exercises such as open-ended scenarios. It is more than just remembering facts or names and dates. Yushuvayeva provides an example: “I tell her to imagine she is in a store and sees a neighbor’s son put something in his pocket and then leave without paying. Then I ask ‘What would you do? Would you tell the store manager or the boy’s parents?’ This gives her something to analyze.” Another activity requires talking about the pros and cons of a given situation such as being married or winning the lottery, and the exercises have prompted in-depth discussions.

“In general, Yevgenia has made excellent progress,” says Yushuvayeva. “I didn’t know that these exercises would result in such an improvement in just two-hour sessions twice a week.”

Of the 104 students who have participated in Elder Rehab during the past four semesters, 38 percent have been foreign born or of foreign parentage.  Countries of origin represented are India, China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Peru, Mexico, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Ghana, and Nigeria. A Palestinian brother and sister are also volunteering this semester. Another bilingual student is providing Elder Rehab services in Spanish to a Mexican American woman, and a German-speaking student has just been found to work with a woman from Germany.

For more information about the Elder Rehab program and space availability for the January 2017 session, contact Arkin at 603-2912 or sharon@bedandbagels.com.

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.