Public Comment

Senior Power?

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 06:32:00 PM

The mission statement of the Division on Aging (DOA)—“to promote a dignified, healthful quality of life for older adults by advocating for vital services, providing opportunities to develop meaningful fellowship, offering lifelong learning activities, recognizing the continued and varied accomplishments of older adults, and being an accessible and trusted community resource”—is belied by the status quo. The DOA is berthed in Health & Human Services; senior center directors report to a city career employee who, it is said, also functions as Commission on Aging (COA) secretary. The COA is “charged with identifying the needs of the aging, creating awareness of these needs, and encouraging improved standards of services to the aging. Council shall appoint one of its members as liaison;” each Councilmember is able [responsible] to appoint a COA Commissioner. Council has neglected its COA in ways not all attributable to lack of funds, e.g. its liaison not attending COA meetings, a seat left vacant for more than a year (said to prefer a young person,) attempts made to reduce meetings frequency to quarterly, agendas and minutes not posted in a timely fashion, dwindling access to pools, increased taxi fares while unacceptable treatment of some passengers is tolerated, failure to manage senior centers’ staff searches and appointments affirmatively. How the COA functions is reflected in its annual Work Plan as well as Berkeley’s nursing homes, senior centers, Tri-Center Nugget newsletter, lunches, etc. 

Senior centers are non-profit community agencies funded by the City with additional funds from the Alameda County Area Agency on Aging, Measure B, corporate and individual donations and seniors’ fundraising activities. Decline in the City’s concern for its 46,350 “senior citizens” has been notable since the retirement of the founding-director of the largest center, the flagship North Berkeley Senior Center (NBSC), serving residents 55 years of age and over; weekday lunch is available to persons who are 60+ “for a suggested donation.” 

Phone calls to NBSC frequently receive a non-response, “The person you are trying to reach is not available right now,” suggesting that neither volunteers nor staff members are present. Recent visits find the automatic front door not functioning, the lounge empty, and the elevator banging and shaking alarmingly. In the past there were always several senior citizens in NBSC’s sunny lounge—just hanging out, reading, watching TV, chatting quietly or not so quietly, waiting by the windows for para-transit, etc.—and in the 10 rooms designed for use by scheduled groups and a variety of programs and free classes, many taught by credentialed instructors. Until 2007, NBSC staff and volunteers were inspired to obtain outside funding for regular production of the “Berkeley Elder Adult Resource Guide,” providing up-to-date information useful to many East Bay seniors. 

NBSC lacks someone with gerontology background as well as a bilingual Chinese-English language staff member. It has been too long since NBSC lost its one and only; in her day, all visitors and phone calls received prompt, informative and welcoming responses whether in English or Mandarin! Such deficiencies contribute to decline in attendance. NBSC past and current daily attendance statistics should be compared. 

In loco parentis is increasingly being imposed upon senior center newsletter readers and housing projects tenants. The unidentified Tri-Center Nugget editor patronizes seniors when s/he features cooking/food information, largely derived from the Internet. Counseling seniors regarding how much to tip the bartender, sommelier and parking attendant is also symptomatic of current unawareness of demographics. Programmatic information regarding classes and events at each senior center are of primary concern. (The exception was nutritionist Natalie Krelle-Zeponni’s varied presentations and responses to queries.) While the City’s en masse flu immunization held at the Berkeley Adult School this year was successful in the sense that there was parking, it should be possible to provide geriatric health-related immunizations (e.g. flu, pneumonia, herpes) at centrally-located NBSC. 

Grocery shopping trips are essential, but seniors crave and some are able to fund their outings to entertainment, sports, and cultural events and venues. Admission to many is without cost. Whether half-day, day-long, or occasionally over-night, outings can contribute directly to the DOA mission. Recently there have been few, and they have not always been well managed. Trip sign-up at NBSC has become competitive; a place on next month’s waiting list may be refused. The possibility of “scholarships” for SSI and other low-income seniors exists. NBSC’s Advisory Council (un-posted agenda/minutes) has been the recipient of legacies and bequests. CDs should be spent down to subsidize tour buses and occasional prominent speakers. Its bylaws refer to an annual election, although the current director allegedly appoints. The large meeting room should be the site of NBSC senior community meetings, forums and programs on serious as well as fun topics. Berkeley authors and musicians, candidates’ forums, caregivers and care giving, “current awareness” fairs (e.g. “Health,” “Housing,” “Transportation,”) herstory, hospice, veterans’ services, volunteering, elder abuse, etc. Volunteer coordinators and presenters might again be recruited. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that more than 62 million Americans will be 65 or older in 2025. Older women are far more likely than men to suffer abuse; approximately 25% of elder abuse occurs in nursing homes and other retirement facilities. There was skepticism when I approached a senior center director about the possibility of an elder abuse current-awareness program; I provided handouts and publicity, and it was well attended. I moved on and up to the COA then-chair, who did not believe that the possibility of elder abuse in Berkeley merited consideration. 

Take a look at the Emeryville Senior Center’s monthly The Link. 


Helen Rippier Wheeler is a Berkeley resident.