Body Partnership

Paraplegia, Pandemics, and Play

I have recently learned some important lessons from my mom about paraplegia and play during the pandemic.

If you have been following my blog for a while, you might remember a post I wrote about my mom that was about paraplegia and swimming. You can read that post here. My mom is a paraplegic and has been in a wheelchair for over fifty years as a result of injuries she sustained in a car accident in her early twenties.

Mom and Dad a few years after the accident.

Given this, it may seem surprising for me to tell you that some of the most important lessons I learned about playfulness and exercise I learned from Mom.

Mom, the Swimmer

Some of the earliest memories of my mom are of her going swimming.

Me and Mom

My mom has gone swimming at least twice a week consistently for the last forty years.

She is paralyzed from the waist down and cannot move her legs, so she swims completely using her arms. She is super strong. Beware if you ever challenge her to an arm-wrestling contest. She might beat you.

Mom loves to swim. One of the reasons she swims regularly is because it is good therapy for her. It allows her to get out of her chair and move all the different parts of her body or let them be moved by the water.  Since Mom can’t walk, swimming is one of the only ways she is able to experience freedom outside of her wheelchair.

But another reason she swims is because it helps her feel powerful, energetic, in control, and alive. When I was growing up, every time she came home from swimming, I loved asking her “How was swimming?” Every single time her face would light up, and she would answer, “It was wonderful! Swimming is always wonderful!” And I always knew this would be her answer (it’s still always her answer), but I loved seeing the joy that swimming brought her.

And Then the Pandemic Struck

Given how essential swimming is to my mom’s physical and mental health, you can imagine my concern when the pandemic took over the world, and my mom’s local swimming pool shut down. In fact, pretty much all the swimming pools in the world shut down. There was no place for my mom to swim.

Honestly, one of my primary concerns at the beginning of the pandemic was “What is Mom going to do if she can’t swim?”

Well, it turns out, not surprisingly, that Mom has developed unusual tenacity of spirit throughout the years. That woman has survived a lot, and she is not about to let a pandemic interfere with her ability to exercise and play.

So, early in the pandemic, I found out that she had started going on a roll and walk every single day in the local cemetery with her sister, my Aunt Miriam. They went every day, rain or shine, and during their walk/roll, they would stop periodically and do stretching exercises.

When Mom told me about her rolls in the park with Aunt Miriam, I could tell she was enjoying them. She told me, “It feels really good. I’m using new muscles, and I feel stronger. And now I know that even if I can’t swim, there are things I can do to take care of myself and stay active.”

I noticed that familiar joy and enthusiasm in her voice—the joy and enthusiasm she always expresses about swimming.

A few weeks later, I found out that she had discovered some wheelchair aerobics videos on YouTube (for both paraplegics and quadriplegics) and that she had added this to her daily exercise routine.

She told me, “At first I was doing them every day, but that kind of wore me out. There are a lot of young guys in those videos, and they wave their arms really fast. I can’t keep up with them right now. I need to build up to that.”

So, she slowed down a little bit, but she has still been doing wheelchair aerobics regularly, and she is excited about it.

Recently I found out she has been doing wheelchair yoga, too. I asked her if I could write this post and include the videos she has been using. Of course, she said “Yes’.

Apparently, my Aunt Miriam has been doing these videos with her, too. So, you might also find them beneficial, even if you can walk.

Mom and Dad recently. They just celebrated 50 years of marriage!

My Play Class

You might remember that a few blog posts ago, I advertised about a play class I was teaching online.  I’m in my first week of that class now, and it is going great. I have a wonderful bunch of women in it, and I am learning a lot from them. I hope they are learning from me, too. Mom also signed up for my class, and the other day she told me that I’m an awesome teacher. But really, the more I think of it, the more I think that a lot of the important lessons I learned about play I learned from Mom.

Here are the lessons I learned:

One: Anyone at any age can play.

We tend to believe that play is only for children. I would like to ask you this very important question: Who made up that rule? Who decided only children can play?

I think this is a false rule that people made up, not fully realizing its consequences, and it has been ruining people’s lives ever since. I also think it is a recent rule. Many other cultures historically, and even now, have emphasized the importance of various forms of play throughout all stages of life. The people in these cultures are healthier and happier because of it.

We can learn to play again, and we need to. Play is for all ages of people.

Two: Playfulness makes you powerful and resilient.

One of the reasons play is so important is because it makes you powerful and resilient. Play helps you develop all your physical, emotional, and mental capacities, and it teaches you that mistakes, failures, skinned knees, and getting lost occasionally are all a normal part of life. None of these things are the end of the world. They are just part of the process, and we can dust ourselves off and play again.

Therefore, play makes us more powerful and resilient, which are capacities we all have and need to strengthen our whole life.

Three: There are always new ways to play.

I have bad new and good news. The bad news is that life throws us a lot of curve balls. We’ve certainly been thrown a huge curve ball with this pandemic recently. When life does this, it can really disrupt and overturn our normal routines.

The good news is that we can always find new ways to play. When we are open to doing this, it helps us discover new strengths we didn’t know we possessed, and we figure out how to feel more alive and engaged with our life.

Four: Playing helps us feel free.

There are many parts of life in which we do not feel free and over which we do not feel like we have control. But playing gives us freedom—in fact playing is pure freedom. The more we bring play or a playful attitude into our life, the more we strengthen our feelings of efficacy and creativity. This can helps us weather those times in our life when everything feel chaotic and un-free.

Five: Play helps us connect with ourselves and others.

One of the important parts of life is learning to connect in a meaningful and joyful way with both ourselves and others. Play provides a perfect opportunity for both those things. Therefore, the more we play in a variety of ways, the more connected and joyful we feel.

Thanks, Mom, for all you have taught me about play.

Me and Mom at my college graduation

And to Everyone: Keep on playing!


If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing on social media. You might also like this post:

How Cultural Messages about Exercise Mess Us Up

Exercise So There is More of You, Not Less of You

10 thoughts on “Paraplegia, Pandemics, and Play”

  1. I loved reading this post on Facebook. I went to high school at Friends Haviland Academy with your mom. I only was able to spend one year with her (our junior year) before her family moved to Oregon, but she became a forever friend. She is such a lovely woman as well as a fierce fighter!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Linda! I love hearing from Mom’s friends. I really appreciate you reading and am so glad you enjoyed the post. And you are right. Mom is both so lovely and a very fierce fighter.

  2. Three cheers for the power of play🎉🌈

    And your Mom is my hero❤️🤗 and she’ll be in my thoughts with every new challenge I face.

    Nice post Shelly and love the birdie drawing 😉

  3. Your communication skills are superb, Shelly. I love reading your “stuff”. And what a wonderful tribute to your awesome Mom.
    Love Aunt Lorraine

  4. Your Mom is a wonderful lady and an inspiration. I did not feel like going for a walk because it is so windy, but you have both made me think I should do better.

    1. Hey Friend: You should absolutely trust yourself and listen to your intuition. I think that the purpose of movement and play is to feel more powerful. Sometimes the best way to feel more powerful is to rest and stay indoors. I didn’t play at all today. I just rested, and I am so glad I did. There is never a “should” with play. There is only a “play when you’re ready”.

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