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Parish Nurse: Margaret Hoarty, Omaha

Nerf falls, inner tubes, plastic bags, colorful scarves, even restaurant milk dispenser bags blown up as balloons -- all manner of items become exercise equipment in the exercise class for seniors at Holy Name Parish in Omaha, Neb.

The class is led by parish nurse Margaret Hoarty using methods that help the elderly achieve physical fitness “without the usual jumping around,” she said. Dancing and music add variety to the class. Conversation creates camaraderie.

“People will talk about relatives or friends who are ill, and we’ll often pray for them,” Hoarty said. “They feel comfortable combining something like this with the spiritual aspect -- that health is mind, body and spirit.”

In addition to working with its own advisory group that communicates senior’s needs, Holy Name’s health ministry is actively involved with Senior Adult Ministry, a consortium of senior ministers from nine local parishes. That group organizes retreats, luncheons, bus trips and parties.

What do the social activities have to do with health? “There have been studies that show how the immune system is strengthened by laughter,” said Hoarty, who has been at Holy Name since January 2001. “People who are socially connected to others have stronger immune systems. If you come to one of those events and witness what’s happening -- the joy that people experience when they get together. They have a good time, sing together, laugh together, eat together. In those communal experiences, you see healthier people.”

Hoarty’s work also includes a bereavement ministry, organizing health education seminars, health fairs and a flu shot clinic. When the parish debated a smoke-free policy, she led smoking cessation classes. Last fall the ministry offered education on domestic violence for the parish priests, staff, secretary and pastoral ministers.

Many of the events were attended by people from the broader community. “That’s an important part of it, too: connecting with the community,” Hoarty told NCR. “The health of the individual impacts the community, and the health of the community as a whole impacts the individual.”

-- Teresa Malcolm

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002