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Shades of Gray

Beyond Bingo : Today's Senior Centers Serve Members in a Multitude of Ways

March 28, 1991|Agnes Herman

When I was growing up, I knew nothing about centers for seniors. Perhaps there were none. Elders stayed at home and filled their days with family matters, the daily newspaper and books.

After my father's retirement in 1947, he and my mother controlled their schedule, diminished their prior activities and, in the process, isolated themselves from family and friends. I know that neither they nor we considered that there were possibilities for enhancing, enriching or expanding their days. Those days, as a result, were long and unvaried. I wish there had been a senior center for them. Perhaps they would have been less lonely.

The senior center movement in this country developed as the numbers of elder citizens increased. And, as the needs and interests of seniors change, so does the focus of the centers. No longer merely providing a hot midday meal, card game and bingo, senior centers in North County serve their members in a multitude of ways.

In 1958, when a senior center opened in Escondido, its founders worried that there might not be enough elderly people available and set the minimum age for membership at 40. But life cannot begin and peak at the same age--the arrangement did not work. Today, anyone over 50 is eligible to participate in all activities.

There is one exception to that rule: the nutrition program. The federal Older Americans Act of 1974 limits participation to people 60 or older. The city of Vista cooks the meals that are offered in senior centers throughout North County. One center director suggests that the popularity of the nutrition program is due to the fact that many males in the current senior generation never learned to cook.

For the 600 people who each day walk through the doors of Joslyn Senior Center in Escondido, there are exercise classes, card games, travel information, income tax assistance, legal advice, medical screening and a host of support groups. Volunteers, guided by professional personnel, provide these services. Programming of this quality is replicated in centers throughout the country.

The support groups at the Escondido center merit special attention. In 1972, a group of retired professionals in that community decided to serve as volunteers and "give back" some of the good things they had gained for themselves. The Senior Service Council of Escondido was established and gave birth to the network of support groups that make the Escondido center unique. Today, among the available groups are "Better Breathers" for those with heart or respiratory problems; "Shush" for those with hearing disabilities; groups for spouses of, and individuals with, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes. There are Alcoholic Anonymous meetings as well.

This center is open seven days a week to meet the needs of participants. When people seek assistance to find special resources or require personal attention, volunteers and staff provide information, referral and warmth.

The center in Escondido is a "Joslyn" Center. Along with 30 other senior centers in California, it is endowed by a foundation established by Marcellus L. Joslyn, an attorney and businessman from Chicago. One might guess that he gained much satisfaction in planning the distribution of his money, but it could hardly be more than that gained by the participants themselves.

Lasting friendships and sometimes marriages develop among the people who meet at the center. It is not unusual for recent widows or widowers to come to the center convinced they are not interested in a relationship or marriage. Not interested sometimes become famous last words. The center's atmosphere is easy and friendly, and two dances a week augment the congeniality.

Paul Athan has been director of the Josyln Center for the past 10 years. He speaks of his work with joy and zeal. With a doctorate in human behavior, he previously worked in the aerospace industry and at a university, but he finds his work today to be the most exciting and fulfilling of his career. He has discovered a spirit of participation and satisfaction at the center that leaves no one untouched. The premise at the center is caring; the result is enthusiasm.

"We are all members of the 'hug club,' " Athan said. "Everyone needs hugs every day."

The Carlsbad Senior Center, established a little more than five years ago, is housed in a building that is even younger. The center is open five days a week, and each day hosts 250 people between the ages of 55 and 90. These men and women are deeply involved in its well-being and eager to ensure it.

Susan Spicard coordinates activities at the center, and her enthusiasm is further proof that overseeing a senior center is an enriching and challenging experience.

Wherever I walked at the center, I was greeted warmly and enthusiastically. The ebullience seemed to be contagious. I had the feeling that this was one very large, happy family, interested in one another and bursting with pride in their center.

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