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Valerie Powell and her assistant Michael Knight carefully lead Mary Chaplin down the hall of the Wynfield long-term care facility with her walker, encouraging her step by step.

Powell is a physiotherapist, who with her two assistants comes three times a week to the facility in Oshawa, Ontario, home to 60 of her clients.

"The most depressing thing for someone is loss of independence," Powell says. "So our focus is on function."

For example, if someone needs two people to help in the washroom, reducing the number of assistants is a dignity boost, she says. The optimum is to manage alone, perhaps with the use of grab bars, which allows for more independence and dignity.

Powell is a clinical manager for LifeMark Health, a private agency that provides government-funded physiotherapy services to 33 long-term care facilities across Ontario. She designs and implements individual programs that, through various exercises, will help people regain mobility lost due to illness, stroke, accident or aging.

Until November last year, Chaplin, 87, was driving her own car, living in her own apartment, cooking for friends and managing "just fine." Then she collapsed with a stroke.

Now, brain damage from the stroke causes sudden spasms that thrust her backward, affecting her balance and therefore her ability to walk. After several months in rehab, she moved to Wynfield, where she has been working with Powell since July.

"The first six months after a stroke are your best window," Powell says. "You can still make physical gains. The best we can do for Mary is a one-person assist" she now needs two people to help her walk, one on each side. But once in her wheelchair, she's independent.

And sometimes there are miracles.

At 76, Ruth Miller used to drive other seniors around and take trips - to Chicago, New York, Niagara Falls, Quebec City, wherever her fancy took her.

Then one day, she was asleep on the sofa and slid off onto the floor, damaging her spinal cord and vertebrae already weakened by osteoporosis.

"Five doctors told my family, 'We cannot do anything for your mother,' "she says." 'She will never walk again.' I was prepared to accept it as something that could not be changed."

After four months in hospital, Miller moved to Altamont Nursing Home, a long-term care facility in Toronto's east end.

There, Miller started working on upper body strength with Powell, who one day noticed some involuntary movement in Miller's feet.

"I thought 'Wow!'" Powell recalls. "I realized at that point we could change our goal. It was a beacon of hope."

Powell worked with Miller for a year and a half. Soon the plucky woman was standing and eventually, walking with a walker. With every step, the staff at Altamont cheered her on. Two years ago, Miller needed total care. Today she is independent. She goes to church, to her daughter's cottage and socializes with her former seniors group.

"It was my faith in God that gave me the peace to accept (not walking)," Miller says. "Now I am thankful for every step. I knew it was a miracle."

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