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Seniors Tackle Diabetes Before Diagnosis

It’s graduation day at the St. Petersburg YMCA, and Ruth Neal and her classmates are taking a victory lap.

The past 16 weeks, they've talked nonstop about counting fat grams, portion control and the value of being active 150 minutes a week.

“I’m going to stick with it, because I want to be as blessed as my mother was. One hundred and six years old when she passed. I want to be just as blessed,” the 71-year-old from St. Petersburg said of her newfound weight loss and exercise routine.

“Wow, 106…” asks Lois Huyghue, the Diabetes Prevention Education program coach for Neal and the nine classmates who graduated recently.

“Yes,” Neal said with a smile. “She didn’t take any medication…She didn’t have nothing. She just died of old age.”

Today, diabetes affects a quarter of all Americans age 65 and older. And even more seniors are diagnosed with its predecessor, pre-diabetes. Like all her classmates, Neal has pre-diabetes and only signed on to the program because her doctor recommended it.

Huyghue says a lot of seniors who sign up for the YMCA Diabetes Prevention program don't want to change their routine. And they are skeptical with the program's simple approach and friendly accountability.

“Week one – no one believes it. What’s the trick? Oh there’s got to be more than just watch our fat grams and do activity. No one is convinced the first couple of weeks,” Huyghue said.

St. Petersburg senior Ferne Mayak says she’s not normally the type to join groups, much less with a group of strangers. And her friends didn't understand why she wanted to lose weight at her age.

“Somebody said, oh don’t lose too much weight, you’ll get all wrinkly. Well at 83, you know…” she says with a hearty laugh.

While she's laughing now, Mayak didn't want to attend the weekly meetings when her physician suggested it could slow her pre-diabetes.

Dr. Thomas Robison has referred Mayak and dozens of his St. Petersburg patients to the Y program, as it preaches his common-sense food and fitness philosophy.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Mary Shedden
The Florida Channel
Dr. Thomas Robison

He's emphasizing the program more now that it recently won a grant Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovationgrant. Tampa Bay and Southwest Florida Ys for the next few months will offer the course for free to seniors diagnosed with pre-diabetes.

“This is essentially a 'no brainer.' We need to let people know that this is before you get in trouble, you’re not even in trouble yet. So this is something you can do to prevent yourself from getting diabetes,” said Robison, a primary care physician. “And diabetes diagnosis – after that – your risk for heart disease goes up – your risk for strokes goes up. Your risk for heart attacks go up.”

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spent years trying to prevent diabetes. They've found that seniors who drop their body weight by seven percent and exercise 150 minutes a week can reduce diabetes risk by 70 percent.

The CDC started testing out those goals through a pilot program with the YMCA several years ago. It’s evolved, and was awarded the innovation grant to reach seniors in 17 communities across the country.

The grant - which lasts through March - pays for a participant's 16 weekly meetings, access to the Y fitness facilities, and a year of monthly maintenance follow-up meetings.

In Florida, the grants are offered at the Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Sky Family YMCAs in the Venice area. (More information about the Diabetes Prevention program can be found by contacting the program coordinator at individual branches.)

Recently, the grant earned an extra boost – gaining the endorsement of the American Medical Association. It’s promoting the program to doctors in the 17 communities where the grant was awarded.

The organization estimates that one-third of all Pinellas County residents has pre-diabetes and are at risk of developing the type 2 diabetes. In Southwest Florida, 35 percent of residents have pre-diabetes.

Dr. Miguel Fana, president of the Pinellas County Medical Association, has referred between 50 and 100 of his patients to the YMCA program. The internist said it reinforces what his staff regularly suggests, regarding healthier eating and more exercise.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Fana Medical Group
The Florida Channel
Dr. Miguel Fana

“It’s a fabulous idea. It’s free. They are giving the patients education. They are at the facility training them. They are teaching them how to cook you know helping them with exercise,” said Fana, whose four locations specializing in serving the senior population.

“And we know that once people get started – you know it’s getting them to start – we knew this program had a lot of elements that would make it easy for them,” he said.

Jennifer Tucker-Mogensen has been teaching the diabetes prevention classes at the Venice Y for several years. She says participants are more eager when a doctor recommends it.

“If your physician tells you that this is something he feels is important for you to do, you probably are going to enroll a little quicker just convincing yourself that this would be something good for you,” she said.

She says the lessons do stick with most of the seniors. It’s because the program isn’t a diet plan.

We don’t want them doing anything that they are not going to be able to do for the rest of their lives. So we don’t give them diet plans to follow, and we don’t give them an exercise regime that they have to come in and do.,” she said. “It’s totally up to them to make their life whatever they need it to be, to be as healthy as possible. So we really push for that sustainability piece.”

Mary Loeffler graduated more than a year ago, but says the eating rules are still second nature. Exercising is harder, the 72-year-old says.

“That was the most challenging yes, exercise, yes definitely. Because I’m not a physical person anyway,” she said. “And I have some arthritic conditions, a little back problem. But when I lost the weight, it made a big difference as far as my back pain went. Yeah, makes a big difference.”

Pamela Thomas of Sarasota said she’s kept the workouts going by replacing the time she went to class with exercise.

“I figured I already committed that time, so now I do a water workout in the pool at the community we live in,” said Thomas, 71, who finished the class in May. “I figured if we I can make these commitments, It will work.”

Ron MacCartney also finished the pre-diabetes class in May. The 84-year-old from Nokomis admits he slips when family comes to visit.

“You overeat one day, then you cut back the next, and that goes week to week as well,” he said. “So I've had four or five days of gluttony, so I will spend the next few days losing those pounds and I will.”

The new way of life has paid off, MacCartney says. His doctor recently told him he's lost more than weight. He's dropped the pre-diabetic label as well.

Pat Morena of St. Petersburg turns 70 this month. She’s gained weight the past few years, as she focused on being her husband’s fulltime caregiver. She signed up reluctantly.

“I had a hard time the first two weeks. I don’t think I lost a pound,” she said. “So I just stuck with it. Because what choice do I have? I don’t want to be a diabetic.”

But Morena made it through the 16 weeks. And she’s ready to return to a routine that includes eating better and playing in the swimming pool with her grandkids.

“It’s like I told them,” she said. “I lost my mojo, and now I have my mojo back.”

--Health News Florida is part of WUSF Public Media. Contact Editor Mary Shedden at (813) 974-8636, on Twitter @MaryShedden, or email at For more health news, visit

Mary Shedden is news director at WUSF.