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Senior Centers Adjust For Boomer Influx

Tuesday July 29, 2003

Juggling parking problems, budget woes and a Baby Boomer population surging toward old age, the city of Berkeley is considering a series of changes at its three senior centers—some of them provoking concern among current elderly users. 

Proposals range from offering more yoga classes, to kicking off a singles club, to renaming the North Berkeley Senior Center the “Lifelong Living Center,” according to a draft reorganization plan put together in the city’s Health & Human Services department in April.  

Most seniors said they welcome these overtures to the aging Boomer set. But many say they have not had enough input on the reform plan.  

Others have grumbled about the push to rename the centers and objected to a plan to move the Meals on Wheels program from the North Berkeley to the West Berkeley Senior Center, where parking is more plentiful. 

“Why should North Berkeley be set free and we [get] punished?,” asked Marion Barlow, 74, a regular at the West Berkeley Senior Center. “Parking here will be ten times worse if we bring the program here.” 

Lisa Ploss, the city’s senior programs administrator, said the dozen vehicles used for Meals on Wheels, which feeds about 240 homebound seniors in Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville, can create gridlock in the North Berkeley Senior Center lot - prompting calls for the move. 

But Ploss emphasized that the Meals on Wheels proposal, like all the ideas in the reorganization plan, is preliminary and requires more input from Berkeley’s seniors. 

Rose Kennedy, a member of the West Berkeley Senior Center Advisory Council, said input is what has been missing. 

“None of the seniors have been involved in the planning,” she said. 

Ploss acknowledges that the city has done a poor job of communicating with the elderly community about the proposed changes. 

“Obviously, we haven’t done this as well as we could have,” she said. “I take responsibility for that.” 

The communication gap has helped fuel rumors, entirely untrue, Ploss said, that the West Berkeley Senior Center is closing.  

Ploss also ruled out a much-maligned proposal, included in the April reorganization plan, that called for West Berkeley seniors to take a bus to the South Berkeley Senior Center every day for lunch. 

Ploss said she is working on a survey, to be distributed at the senior centers in several weeks, that will give the city a broader sense for what programs work and what changes participants would like to see. She added that staff will also meet directly with seniors at each center to discuss the proposals. 

Berkeley’s senior centers, operating on a $2.2 million annual budget, serve 3,000 to 4,000 people per year. 

Ploss said the major motivating factor behind the reorganization plan was the Baby Boomers’ steady march toward old age. According to 2000 U.S. census data, the number of people over 65 in California is expected to jump 172 percent, over the current total of 3.5 million, in the next 40 years. In Berkeley, the 65-plus population will increase by 153 percent in the next eight years alone, according to census projections. 

“We need to start figuring out how to reach that population,” she said. “The challenge is being respectful to the [older] population that has really built these centers.” 

Scott Parkin, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Aging, said senior centers around the country are wrestling with the question of how to attract a generation that has embraced everything from exercise to botox in an effort to escape old age. 

“The image has been that senior centers are for older, more senior people,” he said. 

Experts say senior centers around the country have changed their names, redecorated and built workout facilities in a bid to win over the “new senior.” But change is not always a good thing, warns Paul Kleyman of the San Francisco-based American Society on Aging. 

“All aging is local,” he said, paraphrasing former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, who famously said “all politics is local.” 

Kleyman said makeovers, including movie clubs and trips to vineyards, have tended to be more successful in upper-income areas, and less successful in more traditional, low-income settings. 

The North Berkeley Senior Center is in an affluent part of town, but the south and west Berkeley centers are not. 

Ploss said the city will be careful to build on the strengths of the current centers—including the computer lab at South Berkeley and the line dancing and gardening at West Berkeley—as it eyes reform. 

But funding is sure to play a role in any overhaul. The senior centers escaped the budget ax this June, when City Council closed a $9 million deficit with a selective hiring freeze, tax hikes and cuts. But the financial picture will only get worse next year, when the city will take on an additional $8 to $10 million shortfall. 

“Next year is looking a lot more concerning,” Ploss said.