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The City Journals

98-year-old’s artful and nimble life: still helping others with mobility

Jan 08, 2019 03:14PM ● By Amy Green

Class meeting on a Monday morning for gentle water exercise. (Amy Green/City Journals)

By Amy Green  |  [email protected]

At 50 East 9000 South, around the corner from the Maytag Store, is Sandy Physical Therapy and Aquatics. It’s a quiet, unobtrusive building — a brown-brick, one-story place with a wide open parking lot and plenty of room to enter from 90th South. There is an American flag out front, marking where to pull in and find a space. 

Maria Nygard has been coming to the center’s northeast aquatics area three times a week to volunteer as a teacher. She started coming originally for her own health, in 1995. That evolved into her permanent volunteer position. 

She is now 98 years old, and continues to lead classes, swim and move. Watching her balance in the water is impressive. She does it with grace and amazing control. Nygard welcomes her participants at 8 a.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning into the relaxed pool setting. She has a glow of health about her and a happy smile complementing lovely platinum hair. 

The water, kept at 96 degrees, is not overly heated (like 60 minutes in a hot tub can be). It’s a just right, “warm hug” of water temperature. Nygard says the 96 degrees soothes and calms the storms of arthritis pain. 

Linda Messick comes to the class because a doctor recommended it to her husband when he was dealing with cancer and arthritis. After Messick’s husband died, the doctor encouraged her to keep coming. Messick has been an occasional substitute leader for the class, helping Nygard to keep things running on schedule.

Nygard encourages doing consistent exercises. She explains how it can improve the chances of staying independent into the golden years. 

Jessica Baxter is a physical therapy assistant working at the center, who knows Nygard.  

“Since I started working here, her little group has gotten bigger. Both health-wise and socially, it’s good for them. It helps them keep everything moving. It has contributed to Maria living longer and being able to do the things she does,” Baxter said. “She really impresses everybody. She is the one person I tell a lot of people about. She sets a good example for the patients we work with.”

Nygard now rides in a friend’s passenger seat to get to class, but still enjoys teaching and helping others meet together in the pool. “I used to drive here, but I gave up driving earlier this year,” Nygard said. 

She has been dedicated to it for longer than Orrin Hatch’s run in the senate. Wait no, Orrin Hatch became a senator in 1976 … whoa! Actually, Nygard started volunteering over 20 years ago (when Republicans and Democrats could safely have Thanksgiving together). Nygard really likes to educate herself on politics in her spare time. She is an avid reader.

There is also an uplifting social aspect to the water classes. Those who show up for her sessions have varying physical issues, from back pain to bursitis. But they all seem to have a good measure of fun while there. The class talks and mingles through the one-hour workout. They all know something of each person there — names, hobbies, interests.

Nygard also has a history of being an excellent seamstress and tailor. She worked at ZCMI for a number of years doing sewing and skilled alterations. She is no amateur craftsman. Nygard learned much of her tailoring ability from European clothiers. In the 1950s, she came to Utah from Manitoba, Canada. She worked personally with the original Fred Macray “Mr. Mac” Christensen when he was in business with ZCMI. 

For fun and family bonding, Nygard practiced a hobby of making hand-painted Ukrainian eggs. This type of artwork is called Pysanka. Rather than a typical application of paint, a wax-resist method is used to apply the color. Working on a small surface like an egg requires patience and motivation. 

Pictures of Nygard’s skill show that her personality and gifts are indeed persistent. She proves to be a woman willing to commit to projects and see them through. Nygard recalled how Pysanka-style artwork was a family activity she loved and taught to her kids. “I have three children, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren,” she said.

Nygard may not be painting as many eggs as she used to, or doing jumping jacks in the pool. But her class is not really about doing fast laps or the backstroke. It is gentle torso twists and careful knee-to-elbow lifts. She teaches light gestures that have long lasting benefits. The class chats and catches up on life while following her lead — each person going at his/her own speed. The members agree that these sessions are worth coming back for. 

Neil Overton frequents the class with his wife, Jo. “I didn’t go for a week or two. I noticed a huge difference, and I was like what?! That measly little pool does something!” Neil Overton said.

Jo Overton agrees. “It doesn’t seem like serious exercise, because you’re not hurting when you do it,” she said. “The water eases the impact and makes it easy to do.” 

Anyone who is interested in trying an hour of water relaxation is encouraged to show up to Nygard’s group (sign up at the front desk). As with the water, Nygard and her class are warm and welcoming too. 

They are excited about anyone joining in — old timers, newcomers, the energetic and the weary. Often one cannot swim all troubles away. But Nygard and her class-goers feel that enjoying weekly smiles, conversation and healthy movement can lighten the burden of any strain.