Honey Canney stood in chest-high pool water and shouted instructions during her water aerobics class.
Over the course of an hour, Canney ran the 14 participants through countless twists and turns, lunges and stretches in the pool at Bend Golf & Country Club.
“Pull your little knee up to your hip and squish it,” Canney said. “Pull it as high as you can and keep pushing it. And now the other little guy.”
Most people in Canney’s class range in age from 50 to 90. The most senior in the class is Canney, who celebrated her 103rd birthday on Jan. 30.
Canney’s uncommon vitality inspires her students to not let things like painful joints keep them from staying active — and social.
Canney finds teaching the fitness class as gratifying as participating in it.
“It feels good to me because I know when a leg or an arm or a head doesn’t work, it’s a lot more fun to get it working,” Canney said. “The students come out with a feeling: ‘I feel so much better’ … This exercise goes from your toes to your head, and you exercise every part of your body.”
Canney is shuttled to the country club every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the 9 a.m. class from Whispering Winds, the retirement community where she lives.
The classes give Canney a boost that lasts throughout the day.
“(They’re) invigorating, I do more in those afternoons than I do on the days (I don’t teach),” Canney said. “I’m inclined to be a little lazy, so the classes really do keep me going. When I’m in the water, I feel excellent. I don’t worry about falling from not seeing. I have absolutely no fear.”
Macular degeneration clouds Canney’s central vision and prevents her from playing golf, bridge and taking solo walks outdoors — activities she misses.
She can still see large objects in her peripheral vision, but she hasn’t been able to identify people by sight for a year and a half, she said.
While Canney is slender and small-framed, she’s affectionately referred to as a little general by her classmates and friends, said Colette Blum-Meister, who has taken Canney’s class since 2016.
“The fact that I’m nearly blind — this lets me have an outlet,” Canney said. “I can be of some use to somebody and not sit around and suck my thumb. I miss the things I can’t do, but I kinda dwell on the ones I can do. If I go down the corridor (at Whispering Winds) and something is in my way, I just grab somebody’s elbow and go with them. They all know me and nobody objects.”
Canney knows her attendees by the colors and shapes of their bathing suits.
New outfits throw her off, but that doesn’t mean she won’t call out someone who is slacking.
Bend resident Bev Gordon, 77, recalled Canney’s light scoldings.
“‘You’re not kicking back!’ she’ll say,” Gordon said with a laugh. “And I’m thinking, ‘I thought you couldn’t see!’”
Canney has taught water aerobics at the Bend Golf & Country Club since 1978.
Born on Jan. 30, 1916, in Ireland, Canney grew up in Seattle. She has always taken fitness seriously. She had to.
When she was 13 and swimming at a pool, a boy jumped off the high dive and onto her back.
“He knocked everything helter-skelter,” she said.
Canney spent a lot of time at chiropractor’s office until age 20.
When she married and had her first child, the back pain got worse. A doctor told Canney not to worry about it.
“He said: ‘By the time you’re 25, you’ll be in a wheelchair,’” Canney recalled. “Of course, that was not acceptable.”
Canney remained devoted to her health and fitness, discovering water aerobic classes in 1947. Canney married and had kids, but she doesn’t have a favorite decade.
“Each one has pluses and minuses,” Canney said. “Maybe my favorite decade was when the kids went to college, but that wouldn’t be very nice. But I think it was the kids’ high school years in the 1960s. That was the busiest decade.”
When the Canneys moved to Bend from Alameda, California, in 1972, they joined the Bend Golf & Country Club.
George hit the links, and Honey gravitated toward the pool, where she began directing water aerobic classes when it opened.
Her husband died at the age of 96 in 2013. Married for 73 years, the couple had four children, two of whom are still alive. Canney has outlived her five siblings.
“You get to be 103, you don’t have a lot of relatives left,” Canney said. “It’s lonesome up here.”
Near the end of the class, Jean Persons, 93, got tired.
Her daughter Renée Smit, 58, a retired physician, brings her mother to Canney’s water aerobics class three times per week.
The tubes from her oxygen tank float on the water’s surface as Persons works through the calisthenics while wearing webbed gloves for extra resistance.
Persons began attending the class shortly after moving to Bend in 2012. It quickly became her first social group in town.
She and Canney became close friends and enjoy daily phone conversations.
“I think the world of Honey,” Persons said. “I hope to be her some day.”
The scariest thing about aging is the temptation to close your door on the world, Canney said. She sees it too often in retirement communities.
“Even if you don’t feel top-grade and today isn’t the best day in your life, just get up and say hi to somebody,” Canney said. “The older people who are doing something every day and talking to people — they’re happy. The ones who say ‘Oh, I’m not well enough to do this,’ or ‘I have a sore throat today’ — they find an excuse to sit in their living rooms. I don’t subscribe to that.”
After the water aerobics class, several participants gathered in the nearby hot tub. Gordon, enjoying the post-workout soak, described the class as a family held together by Canney’s warmth and vivacity.
It’s equal parts therapy and support group as members experience the loss of loved ones and health complications, said Sue Eichner, 79.
“Honey’s motto has been ‘use it or lose it,’” Gordon said. “Seeing her is very motivating. I wake up in the morning with aches and pains. I put on the swimsuit, come to class and they’re gone.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Eichner, who sat nearby. “I have more arthritis than you. Honey is my inspiration for living. She keeps plugging along. There’s no one like her in the world.”
A few days earlier, Eichner, Gordon and Vicky Hornback, 68, attended an early birthday party for Canney. Blum-Meister presented each attendee with a decorative, bee-themed pin. The pin she gave to Canney featured a much larger bee.
“Honey is our queen bee,” Blum-Meister said.
Canney said love is the sticky stuff that makes life worth living.
“I feel there is no use being here unless you do something. You have to keep with people,” Canney said. “People have asked me a number of times: ‘In your long life, what would you say is the most important?’ And I always tell them a very small little sentence: to love and be loved. The rest is just life. And as long as you have somebody to care for you, and you have someone to care for, that’s the best. It’s a lot easier to live when you’ve got somebody loving you and you’re loving somebody else.”