Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Café culture redefining U.S. senior centers

At a cheerful café and neighborhood gathering spot, eight women squeezed around a table, with bottomless cups of 35-cent coffee and plenty to do between the salads and paninis.

Mercy Prindes, 69, said she liked to "stop in just to see who's there" when she was running errands. Charlaine Ryan, 69, said it was the perfect "hen house; a place where we can sit and yack and yack and yack." And Margaret Rogers, 82, raved about "real food" - appealing and under $5 - to attract neighborhood young people, who liven things up.

There is a new café society in Chicago's Norwood Park neighborhood, one of three storefront hubs for the elderly here that have become models for reinvigorating America's senior centers.

"Kids have their hangouts," said Marion Joyce Lindgren, at 67 the youngest in the group. "So why shouldn't we, too?"

This is a time of ferment for America's 15,000 senior centers, many of them vestiges of the 1960s and '70s when federally financed meals for the elderly were a pillar of the Great Society. Under the Older Americans Act of 1965, centers are subsidized according to how many hot midday meals they serve. Nutrition and companionship remain worthy goals for senior centers but are no longer the draw they once were.

A handful of studies show that those younger than 65 say they are too busy to use senior centers. But the main reason for staying away is the stigma associated with aging.

In New York City, with a network of 329 centers, almost half are underused, Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs said. A plan by the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg to make the city more user-friendly to the elderly includes modernizing the nation's largest system of senior centers, and including cafés, according to the mayor's office and the department of aging.

The 40-year-old model is not "serving the seniors of today or attracting the seniors of tomorrow," Gibbs said.

Tomorrow is a far bigger worry. Experts predict that baby boomers will not walk in the door of outdated centers - which are often in church basements and reminiscent of high school cafeterias before the advent of food courts, with few activities besides bingo and transportation to the mall.

"If they don't innovate," said John Krout, director of the gerontology institute at Ithaca College, "they will die."

Fierce competition for the senior market has inspired a search for new models and an emerging consensus about the elements that the senior center of the 21st century should include.

Among them are fitness activities, chronic-disease management, fall prevention and other aspects of healthy aging; continuing education, both practical and intellectual; volunteer and work opportunities for those not ready for retirement; a handsome environment that accommodates the physical limits of age without looking institutional; and some programs aimed to the "young old," those aged 55 to 65, to begin changing their negative view of senior centers.

Here in the Chicago area, these "best practices" are on view at the cafés operated by a not-for-profit social service agency, Mather Lifeways, in dense working-class neighborhoods like Norwood Park, and by the North Shore Senior Center, which serves 32 suburbs from a 40,000-square-foot, or 3,700-square-meter, building. The center includes a fitness center, sculpture studio, classrooms and a sun-drenched atrium.

At North Shore, where members pay $60 a year, these goals are met under one roof - something that Sandi Johnson, the center's director, says may be too costly for many communities. With 4,000 members and 700 volunteers, North Shore receives $1 million a year from donors and raised an additional $15 million in a capital campaign for the new building.

One way North Shore cultivates relationships with the young-old is by helping them care for elderly parents, with a daughters support group and geriatric case managers. Another attraction is the fitness center - members pay $350 extra - where fliers advertise boomer-friendly "brain fitness" classes for the worried well and a conference on female spirituality.

The Mather cafés strain less to bring younger people into the mix. There is nothing in the name, decor or menu that shouts "senior center," and the cafés are located in neighborhoods short on stylish, well-priced breakfast and lunch spots. So, as at Starbucks, people of all ages mix over a cup of coffee or a salad. Cafés boast open kitchens, not just for the entertainment value of watching chefs at work but also so new customers or those who come alone are greeted by a friendly face.

The gentle yoga classes, Spanish lessons and the like are reserved for older adults. The main room - with its bright colors, floating ceiling panels and Swedish modern light fixtures - remains a "neighborhood place, not a senior place," said Betsie Sassen, Mather's executive director of café development.

Cathie McCormick, 72, leads an exercise class for those with arthritis. The gym equipment is pneumatic, so resistance is regulated without having to move weights. There is no television set in the gym, or elsewhere, because old people watch enough TV at home and would rather talk to the person on the adjoining machine.

Mather says it will not franchise but is training other organizations to start their own cafés with workshops and how-to manuals. Valparaiso, Indiana, and Sun City, Arizona, already have cafés, and more than 100 social service providers from 30 cities have attended $975 startup workshops, according to Sassen.

Café regulars here in Chicago cite the lively ambience and menu choices as the main reasons they switched their allegiance from a local senior center. On a recent weekday, a few women were toweling off after exercise class. Some had signed up for a body-fat screening.

At computers scattered throughout the room, they shopped online and caught up on e-mail correspondence with grandchildren. From early morning until late afternoon, the conversation drifted from utility bills, to the latest romance novel, to cellphones they liked best.

By Jane Gross


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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