Lynn Schuette began attending the Feeling Fit class at the Lemon Grove Senior Center about three years ago. The 72-year-old artist from Encanto, along with about 50 other seniors attending went from two to five classes a week, to nothing when the first stay-at-home orders went into affect in mid-March last year. This left Schuette and many other seniors feeling isolated and with no way of continuing their fitness routine. Feeling Fit classes which are now closed were at 27 locations county-wide, sponsored by the County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency on County and were free of charge.
Schuette said during the classes she did not socialize with many people. She was there to exercise, then went back to her painting. She got to know the woman who was always next to her in class and stayed in touch after the pandemic.
Bev, another artist from La Mesa was exercising five days a week at the Center and when Schuette spoke with her she noticed that she was becoming more stressed as the pandemic grew.
“After the lockdown in mid-March, who wouldn’t be? We were all thinking it would be over after the first two to three months,” said Schuette.
By mid-July they realized the situation was not good and that they were not getting the exercise they needed, so Schuette and Bev decided they would start walking at Lemon Grove Park, located directly behind the center.
“I had never seen the park, neither one of us live in Lemon Grove, so we met there one morning and walked,” she said. “There were very few people there. It was a beautiful little park, and it was right where we used to drive to go to the class, so that was already part of our routine.”
Bev Moser, 81, worked at Kaiser Hospital for 18 years, is married with six children, 14 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. She has lived in La Mesa for 50 years.
“My husband and I are the only people who have been in our house since March,” she said. “When our children, spouses, grandchildren come to visit we sit in the garage, wearing masks and social distancing. I really miss the close contact, hugging and sitting around our kitchen table visiting and laughing with one another. I feel by walking and exercising during the pandemic it has helped me emotionally, mentally and physically. Exercise makes you feel better, have more energy and adds more years to our lives.”
They continued their walk for two weeks when encountering another class member in the parking lot. After stopping her, Mary Brouillette told Schuette that she went to the park every day to walk her dog since she lived in Lemon Grove. So, Mary joined the artists on their walk. Then they added two more artists, Linda and Chris, both from Spring Valley.
All artists, they dubbed themselves as the Doyennes Walk. All professional artists, “doyennes” was the perfect name for this group. Schuette has been documenting their daily walks through photographs.
“We hope that our activity inspires others to create their own social exercise groups,” said Schuette. “The exercise is critical for all of our wellbeing. We were used to exercising twice a week at least. This is really important for all of us. The secondary part is talking to each other. After all this time, we have gotten to know each other. We talk about what is happening with the pandemic, where resources are, we give each other advice, we find issues we want to talk about and get various opinions. It has become the wonderful social activity that I think none of us expected to happen. It was a lovely surprise to be thrown together and have it mesh in a really good way with five different personalities.”
The Doyennes walk the circuit of the park, which is about a half mile. Then they take time to sit at a picnic table and talk for a while, before heading off to do another circuit around the park. Since August last year they have walked together three days a week, all of them having their different paces making it a comfortable experience for everyone.
“From the day we arrived, and all started walking we have all worn masks and never take them off,” said Schuette. “We are social distanced when we sit and talk. We have always been very clear about COVID protocols and protecting ourselves.”
Mary Brouillette, 85, said she has shared her home with her son since she lost her husband a few years ago. She said it worked out well for them until “this scourge settled on all of us.”
“It soon became a lonely life and I needed something to help fill my days while we get through it,” she said. “Then several of my friends from the Lemon Grove Senior exercise group decided to form our walking and visiting group at our local park. We were all in need of exercise and social interaction. It has worked out great for all of us. Five much happier ladies socializing three times a week. Try to never miss a day and feeling much better all around.”
Chris Alexander. 70, lives in Spring Valley with her husband and two grown daughters. She said the pandemic greatly curtailed the “open house, all are welcome” aspect they fostered in their 40 years of marriage.
“Walking with the Doyennes has been a mind-saver in addition to staying healthy,” she said.
Living with her husband in Spring Valley, Linda Roper, 69, said the pandemic has left her with a lack of alone time and needs a little time away to help her recharge.
“Life is too short to live the same day twice,” she said. “It is important to maintain individuality, so you do not lose sight of yourself.”
Schuette said they want others to find the exercise and camaraderie that they have found helpful in keeping physically and emotionally fit as the pandemic continues. They talked about expanding the group, but all decided no, but rather get others in their own communities to do the same.
“Our walks in the park have saved my sanity and become a powerful antidote to the pandemic and politics, which we talk about a lot,” she said.