SENIOR POWER:Meet some not-young members of the community.

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Tuesday April 27, 2010 - 10:54:00 AM

Part 1: “With our own hands.” 


“Senior citizen population on brink of explosion in world and in United States” declares Senior Journal, quoting the U.S. Census Bureau. It would indeed seem that we are old enough to make a difference, and not just at election time. 

Ten years ago I interviewed several North Berkeley Senior Center elders regarding voting, an upcoming election, and low-income housing. The following year, I reported their views on the right to die. (Berkeley Daily Planet: “Old enough to make a difference,” Nov. 1, 2000; “Seniors could lose Section 8 housing help,” December 26, 2000; “Seniors hesitate to talk about assisted suicide,” Feb. 26, 2001.)  

From those interviews, I drew several general conclusions:  

• Seniors often lack information needed to make informed decisions;  

• Many seniors who consider themselves “informed” have not taken a proactive approach to ensuring that their wishes are carried out; 

• Deficient care at the end of life is due in part to health care providers’ failure to implement patients’ wishes and to provide adequate palliatives. 

During March and April 2010 I asked a diverse group of senior citizens about their concerns and preferences. Now we are focusing on the 3 big influences on old Americans’ well-being: health, housing and transportation.  

The typical responder uses Kaiser, two use Over 60, and one, the Veterans Administration. None has a free “My Medicare” account. (See March 25 SENIOR POWER). None currently smokes; 1 acknowledges drinking. All take 1 or more prescription meds. Several take glucosamine chondroitin sulfate. Arthritis is a problem. 

Two occupy HUD, rent-subsidized, Section 8 units. None lives in public housing. Most live alone. Four own their residence. Of those who are eligible, 1 receives Berkeley taxi scrip; the others inexplicably have not applied for it or have ceased using it. Most use buses. Four have cars; 2 have disabled placards. [For information about Berkeley Paratransit free taxi scrip, email or phone (510) 981-5400.]  

All are registered voters. Most have personal computers and use a public library. None of the Berkeley residents has attended a Commission on Aging meeting; most are unaware of its existence. Several feel insecure where they live and in the streets of their community, although none screens incoming phone calls. 


“I haven’t changed…” Nisei Aiko Yamamoto declared adamantly, referring to views expressed a decade ago. A positive and active person, Aiko considers herself ‘liberal’ because she believes in the right to die and in abortion. Now 89, this strong woman continues to endorse physician-assisted suicide, although she is not confident that physicians can be counted on. Her family has been decimated by cancer. Aiko underwent colon cancer, and she has had no recurrence. She has been “satisfied” with Kaiser since 1952, wears glasses, reports “great” hearing, takes one prescription med, and has an advance health care directive.  


Aiko is looking forward to Trader Joe in Berkeley. She volunteers at the North Berkeley Senior Center front desk and served one term on the Center’s Advisory Council. “One was enough!!” The Jewish Center’s exercise class attracts her, and she belongs to Japanese cultural organizations. She is keen on Oprah and Judge Judy.  


Dorothyand spouse Robert Bryant live in a South Berkeley house they designed and built, “literally, with our own hands,” in 1980. They have grown children and 2 grandsons. Now 80 years old, Dorothy taught school for 23 years, resigned to devote full time to writing, from which she has never retired.  

Dorothy takes several prescription meds, but refused estrogen. “I’m on Kaiser Senior Advantage, which taps into Medicare funds. I have an advance health care directive filed with Kaiser, with copies at home.” The Bryants drive one car. 

“Music is very important to me. Attend a classical concert, on average, once a week. Berkeley Opera. San Francisco Opera when we can get ‘senior rush’ tickets. I play the piano every day for about an hour. I attend George Yoshida’s Tai Chi class at the South Berkeley Senior Center.” (See Dorothy’s July 30, 2009 Planet piece about him.)  

+ + + 

Sixty-two year old “Mr. Keller”is employed by the Berkeley Adult School as a literature instructor. Shakespeare and film are his forte. His Contra Costa County residence requires 1 bus + 2 trains. “I teach at North Berkeley [senior center.] In recent years, the administration has gone from bad to worse. Totally indifferent and hostile supervisor.” Right on!  

Asked whether he has ever been inside a nursing home, James Keller responds “Yes, as a visitor. Sad places which I have mentioned in my plays.” He uses 4 public libraries and “will be fully employed writing and teaching until death.” A registered voter who was born and raised in Australia and London, James has been earning his living since age 15. Asked whether he would open the door to someone who rings the door bell at 2 AM, he responds wisely, no. 


“A printer by trade and a rebel by nature,” reads 84-year old Harry Antero Siitonen’s card. Harry is bilingual and an extremely interesting person. His parents were Finnish farmers and socialists who immigrated to Massachusetts, where he grew up. Asked whether he’s a registered voter, he responds with an “of course” attitude. 

Harry is a Lodger – that is, he lives in Strawberry Creek Lodge and is involved in the Tenants Association. He has served as president and is “looking forward to the Reno trip.” Despite Social Security and union pension, he is on the SCL Section 8 waiting list. 

World War II Navy service provided his G I Bill education. Now he uses Veterans Administration health services, but his hearing aids are unsuccessful. He takes one prescription med, “used to” smoke and drink. “Monday I do gym at 24 hour Fitness and have a Rosen Therapy session at 1:15 PM at SCL.” He also enjoys the Berkeley Public Library’s play-reading group at Central. 

Harry walks and bikes -- keeps his bicycle on his balcony. Does he feel secure in the streets? “Dangerous to go out at night…carry a cane on public transit… VA physician encouraged it.” Asked about volunteer work, he focused on labor, his lifelong concern. He had to quit the Alameda Central Labor Council because of his hearing but he writes for the Finnish-American newspaper, and he pickets.  


Seventy-five year-old Jane Eiseley is another fascinating Lodger. We chatted and enjoyed the Bay views from her one-bedroom apartment’s balcony, laden with plants and bird-feeders. She too is involved in the SCL Tenants Association, spear-heading response to the management company’s attempt to increase rents. Before retirement she was a research analyst, working for Wisconsin on statistical reports on the supply of licensed health professionals. She has free-lanced as a Historic Preservation Consultant. Her University of Wisconsin BA and MA are in history and urban affairs, 

Does Jane feel secure in the streets? “No”. She has a car and SCL parking stall. An Audubon and Turtle Island member, she has testified at Berkeley City Council meetings. Her preference is fiction, although she is currently reading Miracle in the Andes…:. She takes yoga at North Berkeley Senior Center. Jane, uniquely, was aware of the recent Elmwood Nursing Home scandal. (See April 1, 2010 Planet.)  


To Be Continued 



Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at  

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