Teaching VA caregivers wheelchair tai chi for Veterans

Tai chi master: “Reinforces perception that they CAN do it”


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In 2016, Zibin Guo began teaching Veterans the quiet martial art of tai chi. He taught the class at a Veterans Affairs hospital for the first time in Murfreesboro, N.C. The Adaptive Sports Grant Program of USVA funded the program.

Guo is UC Foundation professor of anthropology with the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

This past February, Guo taught a course for 17 health care providers at the Salem VA Medical Center. As a result, the Salem VAMC is one of 36 centers that offers wheelchair tai chi. Later, the VAMC staff plans to offer the program to Veterans in the medical center’s community living facility. The staff will also offer the class within the psychosocial rehabilitation and recovery center in the spring/summer. Rollout to outpatient programs is planned later in the year.

As the photo above demonstrates, wheelchair tai chi can be done seated or standing. Consequently, VA staff learn the art in both positions to help them develop a feel for how patients will interact with their chairs in the tai chi movements.

Transform limited physical function into a positive

Guo is a tai chi master. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut and a Fellowship at Harvard Medical School.

Zibin Guo teaches a tai chi class at the Salem VA Medical Center.

“I developed the program to train health care providers to use the program for Veterans. Tai chi is an ‘internal’ martial art. In addition, it’s perfect for those with limited physical function. This limited function has always been considered a weakness. What we have to do is transform that into a positive, through movement and understanding, the principles of the circle and redirecting the flow of energy.”

Guo developed the program in mind/body healing as a health and fitness alternative for Veterans with all body conditions. By providing pure movement experiences, Guo said people can empower themselves, especially those with physical or psychological disabilities, or PTSD.

Tai chi promoted as alternative health modality

“Since I began working with Veterans, the synchronization, the sense of harmony, the camaraderie, it’s all very empowering to them. Tai chi also reinforces a person’s perception that they can do it. It gives them a sense of control, and for many, it helps with physical symptoms, such as pain. The number one benefit I hear from Veterans is that they enjoy the camaraderie and the harmonized movement. Second is the confidence and control they gain from those movements.”

During his work in Tennessee, a Veteran took the class with the aid of a cane after attending for a couple years in a wheelchair.

“Tai chi helped her deal with pain and de-stressed her. I’ve spoken with suicidal patients who have told me it liberated their sense of negativity. And I’ve found that people who engage with it are more likely to have a proactive lifestyle.”

The class is about more than just arm movements, according to Marilyn Radatz. Radatz is the Whole Health Program coordinator and supervisory recreation therapist for the Salem VA Medical Center.

“Tai chi is not just sitting in a chair but integrating the chair motion into the tai chi movement, transforming the image of the chair into something else. Our trained providers will work as a team to develop program opportunities to engage Veterans in adaptive/wheelchair tai chi. It will be part of both inpatient programs, such as the Community Living Center and mental health programs, as well as for Veterans in our outpatient clinics,” Radatz said.

The 17 caregivers who received the training included recreational therapists, certified occupational therapy assistants, physical therapists, physical therapy assistants and social workers.


Rosaire Bushey is a public affairs officer for the Salem VA Medical Center.

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