A community-based option for aging in place

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

It's a beehive of activity.  People scurrying here and there to catch a bus or join a work group, attend an exercise class or go to a computer class.   Those who can walk are helping people who have trouble walking.  There is a constant buzz and chatter as people trade information and tell stories.  And everywhere you look there are volunteers, most of whom are also seniors, who run the show, day in and day out.

I'm talking about the Annapolis Senior Activity Center.  The center serves a 200-300 seniors a day – a diverse group "all aging together," according to senior Julia Crowner.  Her friend Rosilyn Cypress added, "We love the volunteers; they are like a daily dose of good medicine."  

With only two paid staff, director Becky Batta and her jack-of-all trades #2, Mary Crowner, volunteers are the backbone of the center.  There were at least 15 additional volunteers on the day I visited – from the receptionist and nutrition aide to teachers and trip planners.  The roster of active volunteers numbers more than 60.

The minute you walk in the door, you sense the upbeat, can-do, welcoming atmosphere of the center.  When I mentioned this to one of the volunteers, she said, "Oh, that's because of Becky.  These places always reflect the spirit of the director, and Becky – and Mary, too – are always encouraging us to make things work for the members and to make sure everyone feels welcomed and wanted."   I later found out that Mary, born and raised in Annapolis, is the go-to person for anything related to computers.

The center is located in the old Bates High School, an exclusively African-American school until 1966 when Annapolis public schools were integrated.  In fact, Mary and several other volunteers are Bates alumni with fond memories.   Bates was boarded up in 1981 only to be rebooted as the Wiley H. Bates Heritage Park and, in 1994, added to the National Register of Historic Places.  Since 2006, Bates has been the home of the Annapolis senior center, the Boys and Girls club and 71 apartments for senior housing.  

Bea Smith, 91 and a class of '37 graduate of Bates, said, "I love to come here for exercise and to meet old friends.  It beats sitting home and watching 'As the World Turns.'" 

The senior centers are yet another way for those in their bonus years to "age in place."  Open to those 55 years and over, the center is important to the "aging in place" movement because it provides a way for stay-at-home seniors to get out of the house and mix it up with others, engaging in social activities , paying attention to their health and well-being, learning new things or applying their skills – and not just painting or ceramics but also on clean-up details or other useful work.  

The center also provides many opportunities for members – no membership fees; only annual registration is required – to enjoy enrichment activities such as the performing arts, museums and historical sites – not only in Annapolis but in surrounding communities, even in other states.  The day I visited the center, a group of 54, plus one leader, had boarded a bus at 8:30 am to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, a venture that included a late lunch at the historic Old Ebbitt Grill, just steps from the White House.   

This year there will be 20 such "day trips" – one every two weeks or so – in addition to several "extended stay trips" – for example, to Chicago, Mackinac Island in Michigan, Charleston and even a short Caribbean cruise.  These trips are not free.  For example, the Holocaust Museum visit cost each participant $80.  The Chicago trip will cost $674, so participants, not the taxpayers, foot the bill.

These trips are planned and organized under the direction of Jane Cartney.  Jane is 83 and a volunteer.  The day I was there, she was joined by Maxine Hessler, also a volunteer, who told me, with a smile on her face, "I am younger than Jane; I am 81."  Jane and Maxine have the energy and enthusiasm of 40-somethings.  They run the show and were proud of the fact that each year they give members a lot of choices, including the opportunity to vote on the day trips and extended stay trips they want to take.  Result:  This year, all 20 day trips were filled to capacity.

Other programs provide guidance on nutrition, health screening, flu and pneumonia shots.  Other volunteers provide income tax assistance and help with using other community resources – including churches, non-profits and government programs.  There are language classes and history classes.  Dance classes, aerobics, yoga and walking clubs.  The Senior Center is close to a one-stop shop that serves the social engagement, mental acuity, physical fitness and enrichment needs of people in their bonus years.  

The senior centers are also another important example of a social innovation that will help aging boomers have healthy, productive, satisfying and affordable options for managing their needs and maintaining their independence in their bonus years, an important issue as the number of people 65 or older will nearly double over the next 18 years. 

It's easy to get frustrated by government – wasteful spending, excessive taxes, fees for this and that, empty buildings, big retirement packages, unresponsive bureaucrats.  But when government – in this case, county government – serves the people, rather than the other way around, it is something to celebrate.  Joyful service to facilitate aging in place is a good way to describe the work of Annapolis Senior Center.  



It’s better to wear out than rust out.”  That is the message of Reboot!  While American culture glamorizes the “Golden Years” of endless leisure and amusement, Phil Burgess rejects retirement, as he makes the case for returning to work in the post-career years, a time he calls later life.

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