When they say life can change in an instant, Lilia Cardenas knows that feeling all too well. One morning in December 2022, as she was getting ready for work, suddenly she could not breathe. “I called 911, I felt like I was suffocating. I was terrified, I didn’t know what was going on with me,” said Lilia. First responders put her on oxygen and rushed her to the ER.

At the hospital, Lilia was told she had had a stroke. She was facing a long and difficult recovery and radical lifestyle changes. The stroke had affected mobility on the right side of her body, making it difficult for her to walk and use her right arm and hand. Her healthcare providers prescribed an array of medications, a new diet to manage her high blood pressure, and exercise to support her rehabilitation.

“I didn’t even know I had high blood pressure, now I had to take a lot of pills every day. My dietitian recommended a low-salt, low-fat diet, and double the vegetables—I wasn’t sure what to eat anymore. They also said I should enroll in a gym, but some of these changes were hard on our family budget because after the stroke we lost the income from my job,” said Lilia.

Although deeply grateful to be alive, she was also scared and anxious about the future.

One day her husband, a cook in the kitchen of On Lok 30th Street Senior Center for 15 years, brought home On Lok Mission Nutrition meals for her to try. That’s when Lilia’s life took another turn, this time for the better.

“The food was delicious, and I learned it was also healthy and nutritious. So, I started coming to On Lok 30th Street Senior Center for the senior meals. Then I discovered all the health and wellness programs the center had to offer. Everything I needed to feel better and get better,” said Lilia.

Lilia signed up for On Lok Always Active exercise and fall prevention classes and Tai Chi for Arthritis to improve her balance. On warm days, she enjoyed going to the garden. “I was walking better and feeling more secure. People noticed that I walked faster,” said Lilia. Her blood pressure stabilized, and her doctor took her off four medications.

Lilia has recently participated in the Aging Mastery Program, a course created by the National Council on Aging and presented by On Lok to help seniors make the most of their longevity. “I wanted to learn what to expect from the change of life. After that I said, I want to be a volunteer! Now I volunteer several days a week at the center in the snack bar, monthly bazaars, and hospitality desk. I have also recruited other participants for the Aging Mastery Program. Volunteering makes me feel useful to the community. It’s my way to pay back. At the center, they believe in me. And I believe in them. On Lok means motivation for me,” said Lilia.

“My sister told me, when I used to call you were always in bed watching TV. Now you never call because you are always busy. I have just signed up for a painting class so I can help restore function in my right hand. And the Happy Heart Gym has reopened after shelter in place. I love it! Everything, it’s here.”

In the photo, Lilia Cardenas (center) at her AMP graduation with (L) Valorie Villela, Director of WELL Senior Programming, and Vicky Palacios, Assistant Director of Programs & Operations, On Lok Day Services.