Healthy Aging

JoAnn D’Alessio: Walking (and Volunteering) for Life

“The younger generation has to learn how to appreciate the old. And I think if enough of us go out and show them that we are not sitting home and knitting or watching TV, they will see that we are an important benefit to society.”

On the first Sunday in November, more than 50,000 people will complete the annual TCS New York City Marathon. The event touches every borough in the city, and its stories include those of first timers, people in their 80s and 90s, elite runners and people who’ve travelled from all over the world to be part of it. Pulling off a hitch-free experience for the 26.2 miles is due, in a large part, to an army of 10,000-plus marathon volunteers.

These volunteers do everything from managing water stations and handing out bagels, to getting runners in place and most important, encouraging them to get to the finish line.

That’s where JoAnn D’Alessio comes in.

On Sunday, after runners have heard the roar that erupts as they exit the 59th Street Bridge, they hit a quieter section. Volunteer D’Alessio will be standing there next to a man in a banana suit, cheering as loud as she can. “I am not going to be in the banana suit since I am coming from teaching, so it will just be me and my books,” she told Senior Planet with a smile.

D’Alessio, an ardent walker and  lifelong volunteer for the New York City Marathon, was honored in 2013 for working more than 100 hours that year for the marathon organizer, the New York Road Runners Club. And NYRR is not the only organization for which she volunteers her time. The 67-year-old works for the Striders program, a weekly walk that aims to get people age 30 and up walking for health and participates in charity walks across the city; leads a walk program for the NYC Parks Depatment; is a Community Emergency Response Team responder, an upcoming Moving For Life Susan G Komen volunteer and a member of the community wellness center at NYCHA Jefferson Houses, which is trying to bring healthier food to East Harlem. In her spare time, she also volunteers during holidays at a friend’s bakery and babysits.

We caught up with D’Alessio before and during a Striders walk to learn about what volunteering, the marathon and walking mean to her.

How did you got involved with New York Road Runners?

I was always extremely active, and then I wound up with cancer. Once I got my first chemo treatment,  I saw that I couldn’t do what I used to do. Before the chemo I had always walked. I even was a walk instructor and healthy hearts program participant. I knew that a group was the only way I would get back in the game, so I came to the Striders program. It’s four years later, and I still don’t have the same stamina I did before, so I have to limit myself.

How does walking figure in your life — is it more than a way to stay fit?

I walk to explore my neighborhood and enjoy nature. Walking calms me down when I’m upset or have to think about different things — and it offers me health benefits as well as personal enjoyment. I walk to most places that I have to go. Sometimes when there’s traffic, I can walk faster than the bus! 

Tell us about race day.

I cheer the people on. It’s easy for us to say, “Yay, you can do it, you’re almost there!” But it’s easy for us to say because we didn’t just run the 18 or 20 miles. We are standing here like jerks, and they are feeling it at this point — and yet the worst part is still yet to come.

I think the people who are running worked very hard, and even if they don’t finish, they accomplished a lot. I always said that once in my life I would like to the Marathon, but I don’t know when — maybe when I’m 90. Sometimes I think I could walk it faster.

What does aging with attitude mean to you?

I think that people have this connotation of being old and you can’t do anything — if you are old you are not necessary and you are not important. But old people have a lot of knowledge, and the younger generation has to learn how to appreciate the old. I think, if enough of us go out and show them that we are not sitting home and knitting or watching TV, they will see that we are an important benefit to society. Maybe the younger generation wouldn’t be in gangs if they would understand that.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Striders group?

The senior group has people from 50 or 55 to whatever. Our oldest senior here is 89. And they are pretty lively. A friend I worked with when I was younger had a senior group, and sometimes he would tell me that so-and-so had died. And I would think, they were so young! And he’d say, what are you talking about, they were 98! You didn’t realize, because they were so active and energetic, and you can see that with the group that we have now. Even though they are old — I shouldn’t say old; let’s say “mature” — they are vital and alive and do things. Maybe when we were growing up, Grandma would stay home and sit and cook, because that generation had a harder life. Our lives were slightly easier, so at an older age we are more active.

You are pretty fit. What are your top fitness tips for seniors?

Be more social when it comes to exercise. Even if it’s a neighbor or a family member, just go for a walk. You don’t have to do anything major. If you don’t want to walk the 10 miles or two or three miles or whatever, just walk two or three blocks; even a block. I told that to my girlfriend, who doesn’t exercise — even if you get out of the house and walk to the curb in front of your building, you did more then just sitting at home all day. If you don’t feel good, just walk half a block and you’ll feel better. You don’ t have to do major stuff to start up. Let’s say today you walked half a block; in a week maybe you’ll walk the whole block and it will just keep going like that. Small steps usually helps — like in life.

How about your tips for would-be senior volunteers?

Even if you have only 15 minutes or don’t feel like giving more time, that’s more then nothing. And once you are there, you kind of get into it, so you stay an extra 10 or 15 minutes. Remember, it’s not your whole life — its called volunteer, and you can do whatever you want. It’s the time that you make. And it’s your decision when you come and go.


In NYC and interested in volunteering?

  • On Marathon day, anyone can cheer on the runners from the sidelines. Click here to see a map of the course. Read the spectator guidelines here.
  • If you’re interested in helping out in a more formal way, sign up to be a race day volunteer for 2016 here (signup opens November 2).
  • NYRR organizes several other races during the year for which volunteers are needed.

Also see Senior Planet’s articles:

Photo: NYRR



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