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Interview: Tai Chi: a Healing Art


Dr. Gary Irwin-Kenyon

Dr. Gary Irwin-Kenyon

“The research is demonstrating what the Chinese have known for centuries,” says gerontologist Gary Kenyon. “Tai Chi practice is beneficial for virtually all systems of the body.”

In Storying Later Life (Oxford University Press), Kenyon explores Tai Chi as both a healing art and form of narrative care.

Kenyon’s article is one of 22 chapters in a new collection (co-edited with Ernst Bohlmeijer and William Randall) that reflects new directions in the field of aging. This collection stresses the biographical side of human life is every bit as critical to fathom as the biological side. Put another way, “Our story may be the most precious possession we all have, especially the older we grow.”

A leading scholar, Dr. Kenyon is founding chair and professor in the gerontology department at St. Thomas University in Fredericton (New Brunswick, Canada). And a co-creator of the field of narrative gerontology and the concept of narrative care.

AHB reached him in Fredericton.

Ruth Dempsey: So what led you to Tai Chi?

Gary Kenyon: Originally curiosity led me to the martial arts, first karate. I had a special teacher who got me going and then I continued from there to Tai Chi with another teacher. This was the time of Bruce Lee and his movies and that influenced me as well. But later, the meditation and health aspects of Tai Chi became integrated with my career as a gerontologist.

RD: Tai Chi is a healing art…

GK: That’s right. Increasingly, the research is demonstrating what the Chinese have known for centuries: that Tai Chi practice is beneficial for virtually all systems of the body.

It is helpful in dealing with psychological and emotional issues such as addiction, anxiety and grief.

And Tai Chi is a purposeful activity and, thus, has meaning for the practitioner. This can be called a spiritual benefit.

RD: And Tai Chi is a “form of moving meditation.” How so?

GK: Tai Chi talks about “movement in stillness and stillness in movement”. The idea is that when performed correctly the Tai Chi practitioner feels peaceful and quiet even when doing the movements. It is good for those of us who may have difficulty sitting still to meditate.

RD: You have been a practitioner for three decades. What difference has Tai Chi made in your life?

GK: It is not a quick fix, but over time, it has helped me to give up some control and become more accepting. As a result, I deal better with stressful experiences in life. It also keeps me in shape physically.

I enjoy the camaraderie with my Tai Chi friends. I also enjoy the fact that learning and teaching Tai Chi is a never-ending process. Psychologically, it helps me to focus my mind and get things done faster and with less distraction.

And it promotes what I call “many moments of peace”.

RD: You work with older adults in the community. What are the benefits of Tai Chi for older people?

GK: Anyone can practice Tai Chi. It can be adapted to any level of ability. I teach classes with fit younger or older persons and also to residents in nursing homes. I have several students who are very close to being centenarians.

Tai Chi can help with most health challenges – from heart conditions to osteoporosis, sleep, hypertension and many others.

It is also an opportunity to meet socially, and, as there is no competition, it is relaxing in that way and can help with loneliness.

As I mentioned early on, Tai Chi is a meaningful activity and can give an older adult a sense of purpose.

Finally, it promotes feelings of well-being and peace.

RD: You say Tai Chi is a form of “narrative care”. What is narrative care?

GK: Narrative care is an approach to care that arises from what we call a wisdom environment. A wisdom environment is one that is based on storytelling and storylistening.
bookcover-storying later life
Think of it as a care setting in which the unique life story – that is what is meaningful to that person – is really listened to, and care is based on that story.

Tai Chi, as narrative care, means that the class is designed in a way that is respectful of the abilities and challenges of each participant.

In this case, narrative care also involves helping each participant to connect with the silence in the centre of each of our lifestories. In my experience, this can help even a dementia survivor to find moments of peace.

RD: In the book, you explore the possibilities of narrative care for our health care system. How would this work? Can you give me an example?

GK: A health care system based on narrative care would put the person at the centre of the clinical setting. In other words, the system would be set up in a way that is sensitive to the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of the person.

As we know from geriatric medicine, these needs – particularly as we grow older – are often interconnected. A person may visit an emergency unit at a hospital, but he or she really only needs to “talk to someone”. If this intervention were readily available, it would help the patient and save the system money.

A more simple example is to move away from common phrases such as “what do you expect at your age” and “how are we today dear”, and to actually be present to the person and their story.

Narrative care creates a space in which the patient’s voice can be expressed.

It is low-tech and very inexpensive. Mainly, it involves cultivating a certain attitude, or way of being, in all the stakeholders.

RD: Are there any programs in Canada, or elsewhere?

GK: Yes, there are a number of excellent examples of narrative care. In Canada, I would recommend, in particular, programs at the York Care Center in Fredericton.

There are other examples, not limited to long term care, in the Netherlands. These can all be found in Storying Later Life.

I also offer workshops on the topic. You can get the details at