Senior Services addresses the needs of older adults, whether related to health, economics, general well-being, transportation, minor home repair, nutrition, activities or exercise. The goal is to foster independence.

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The music is loud and bouncy, and seniors in this class are ticking off the reps, lowering themselves into their chairs and then powering back up. They’re in training, you might say, for getting old.

“Sloooowly,” booms instructor Mark Bryant, a muscular 53-year-old who carefully watches each one of them, his eyes trained to spot problems. “Don’t just flop!”

You think getting out of a chair is easy? Wait until you’re 86 like Pat Helland, with the bones in your back spliced together.

Or until you’ve had a bad skiing accident that cracked your tibia and dislocated your shoulder, like 77-year-old Jean Lepley did four years ago.

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Despite the laughter and irresistibly upbeat music, this “EnhanceFitness” class at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center is serious business. Research by the University of Washington and Group Health Cooperative has documented its role in lessening the impact of age-related conditions.

The program is one of many supported by Senior Services, one of 13 agencies helped by donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

Like other Senior Services programs, the fitness classes are oriented toward keeping seniors healthy and independent. Last year, 12,761 seniors took part at different locations.

Dorene Cropley, a “junior” senior at 67, resisted for a year her friend’s entreaties to take part. “I said, Really! I’m not old!’ ” admonished an indignant Cropley. Finally, in pain from arthritis and osteoporosis, Cropley gave in and came to a class.

“I came away with really good feelings,” recalled Cropley, a retired medical transcriptionist. The camaraderie was contagious, the instructor was knowledgeable and the exercise felt good, so she kept coming, amazed at how even the most frail in the class kept improving.

Then, several months later, gardening at home, Cropley fell off a 7-foot retaining wall onto concrete, sustaining disabling injuries. After several months, she limped back to class.

Now she’s completely recovered, stronger and more pain free than ever, she says.

More seniors

Seniors are living longer, and there will soon be many more of them, notes Denise Klein, Senior Services’ chief executive officer.

In 2000, there were 4.2 million people 85 and older in the U.S. Last year, there were 5.7 million — a figure expected to rise to 14 million by 2040. The number of people age 90 or older is nearly triple that of 30 years ago, according to a government report by the Census Bureau, and poverty becomes increasingly likely as a person ages.

Many seniors need help, in part because resources that helped them in the past are drying up.

“Economic recession meets tax revolt in Washington state,” Klein says. “We’re raising more private funds than we ever have, because we have to.”

On a personal level, too, many of these seniors don’t have the support they once did. Formerly employed children or other relatives who might have helped out in a pinch have lost their jobs. And while most seniors are on fixed incomes, expenses have risen steeply.

The help that Senior Services offers recognizes some of the new realities. For example, the agency has funds for back-to-school clothes for children being raised by their grandparents, and help for caregivers, many of whom care for aging parents and children simultaneously.

“That’s the message: You don’t have to do it all by yourself,” says Klein.

At the Southeast Seattle Senior Center, many seniors in the fitness classes will stay for lunch, paying $3 for a cooked-from-scratch hot meal that might feature fried catfish one day and “Mexican lasagna” another, reflecting the diversity of those who attend classes at the center.

Lunch provides needed nutrition, says Kate Harkins, the center’s community-engagement coordinator, but it’s not just lunch. For many, it’s a vital connection with others.

“I come for the community, the friendship,” says Helland, who lives with her son and his wife in the Rainier Beach area. “When I see people as old as I am, and just as crippled up, it gives me encouragement.”

Kay Vera, 86, says she’s been coming to the classes for 26 years, having joined soon after her husband died. Back pain used to force her to sleep on her side all night, she says. “Now I can sleep straight.”

“We meet nice people,” she adds. “It’s so fun. We’re laughing. Mark is a great instructor, very understanding and kind,” gently correcting and instructing.

Bryant, a former world-champion weightlifter, knows each person in his classes by name “and who has which kind of hurt and where,” Helland says.

Most of all, he knows what they need as they age: balance and strength to be able to walk without falling; arm, back and core muscle strength to lift a bag of groceries; strong thighs to be able to climb onto a bus or out of a chair.

“Moving into hamstrings,” he calls out, intent on educating about muscles as well as motivating. “Let’s work those quadriceps!”

Living, laughing

Bryant himself knows plenty about pain and recovery and the power of help from friends as well as from strangers, who helped secure donations and arrangements for his hip-replacement surgery in 2008.

So he works his seniors hard, says Estelle Altabet, 83. “I know that my exercising all these years has me in the great shape that I am in,” says Altabet, pumping her hand weights.

Like many programs affiliated with Senior Services, the center depends on volunteers for tasks large and small. Hing Ng, 84, carefully sets up the chairs before each fitness session he attends.

Kay Endo, 86, has been volunteering for 14 years, helping staff the reception desk and handle whatever needs doing, and is now on the center’s board. Every month, she knits an afghan and donates it. “My doctor says keep active, and laugh a lot” — and she does.

All together, more than 3,000 volunteers of all ages now help Senior Services, says Klein, the chief executive.

“It’s a community — a concerned community rallying around older people and also around kids, realizing that we’re connected to each other, the old, the kids, the working families,” Klein says.

“If we help out any one of those folks, we’re helping the whole community, promoting the whole idea of interdependence.”

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or“> On Twitter @costrom. Information from Seattle Times wire services is included in this report.

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