Opening Older Minds to New Alternatives

Written by NY Press on . Posted in News Our Town, News Our Town Downtown, News West Side Spirit, Our Town, Our Town Downtown, Special Sections, West Side Spirit, WESTYS.


By Tom DiChristopher

When most people think about activities for senior citizens, they think shuffleboard, bingo—maybe mahjong.

Karen Fuller’s mind goes elsewhere: gong therapy, laughter yoga, massage tai chi.

For the past 20 years, Karen Fuller has been enriching the lives of seniors through a wellness program at Dorot, an organization that alleviates social isolation among the elderly in the Jewish and wider community. Far from your average slate of senior pastimes, the program taps holistic medicine, alternative therapy and creative arts to keep Dorot’s clients happy and healthy.

Though Fuller herself built the program from the ground up, she is still surprised at times by how well the activities go over with clients.
“They seem amazingly open,” said Fuller. “They like things I never would have anticipated.”

Past classes have immersed Dorot clients in subjects such as sound therapy to smooth out stress, Shakespeare readings to aid memory and olfactory treatments that use flowers, herbs and essential oils. Speakers visit Dorot’s 85th Street location to give lessons on topics like cooking, flower arranging and yoga.

Fuller believes the program has shown that seniors are too often mislabeled as close-minded. Still, her co-workers know her way with people has helped Dorot clients take the leap from weight training to holistic healing.

“They really trust Karen, and although these ideas may be new to them, where she leads, they will follow. Because they know she’s genuinely interested in their well-being,” said Judy Ribnick, director of community services at Dorot.

Dorot seeks to help seniors live independently in their communitieswith quality of life. The organization works toward that mission through social services, including kosher meal delivery, and volunteer programs that bridge generations and provide the opportunity to make new friends.

Fuller found her way to Dorot after studying naturopathic medicine at Oregon’s National College of Natural Medicine and completing a master’s in social work at Columbia University. She worked in psychotherapy for eight years, including at Dorot, but she eventually made senior wellness her life’s work.

Inspired by Miriam Nelson’s book Strong Women Stay Young, Fuller created a program oriented for people 80 and older, who often face physical obstacles to staying fit. An initial class on prevention grew into Dorot’s senior wellness program, which now attracts seniors of all ages, varies for physical and cognitive ability and—perhaps most importantly—changes constantly.

“It’s very important to keep trying new things and getting introduced to opportunities to do something different,” said Fuller.

Fuller credits two women for instilling this mindset in her: her grandmother, whom she describes as a wonderful and open-minded person, and her mother, whose volunteerism imparted upon her a sense of service early on.

As a full-time staffer at Dorot, Fuller has created a career in community building. She sees the wellness program as a door to Dorot’s larger mission.

“It’s an opportunity to get connected, stay connected to community, to really grow and learn and have a good time,” said Fuller.

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