Senior Power : A Conversation With Two Old-Timers…

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Monday August 16, 2010 - 09:24:00 PM

Old-timer is a noun used informally to refer to (a) an elderly person, and (b) a person with considerable tenure or experience in a given place or activity. Recently I met with two senior citizens who have retired from positions of leadership and responsibility at City and County levels. Suzanne Ryan, former Director of the North Berkeley Senior Center (NBSC), retired early at age 60 in 2007. Louis Labat, Program Financial Specialist of the Alameda County Area Agency on Aging (AAA), retired at age 62 in 2003.  

We talked about their lives since retiring from the pressure and problems and satisfaction associated with enhancing the lives of Berkeley and Alameda County senior citizens. I was interested in those three major considerations in many seniors’ lives -- health, housing, and transportation -- as well as what they have been doing with all that free time! 

Labat and Ryan have several things in common. Neither smokes, lives in Berkeley, nor is either a Gray Panther. Both use the Internet and email, have an HMO and advance care directives, majored in social welfare, volunteer extensively, and are registered voters.  

Following its opening in 1979, the North Berkeley Senior Center (NBSC) became well known as innovative and active. Attendance and the number of volunteers increased dramatically. The Nugget, Portable Meals, Japanese Seniors Program, and minibus service were supplemented with special programs, intergenerational activities, the Nutrition Program, assistance and advisory groups, fundraising, the Center’s own up-to-date Resource Guide, and a relationship with the Berkeley Adult School that brought free classes taught by credentialed instructors on site were a few of many accomplishments. 

Suzanne Ryan began her job as NBSC director from the much smaller confines of space in a church hallway! “I got to work with the architect who designed the new Center… For this building, we had to keep in mind accessibility ... especially hand rails for the disabled.” When interviewed in 2007, she said “There’s never been one day that’s been boring at the center. “But I am sixty, and I need to do something else... I will be going to a senior center, but it will probably be the one in Albany...” 

After 32 years working with and for Berkeley senior citizens, she is doing the unrelated things to which she has looked forward: volunteering in behalf of and working with young people, reading, sewing, and more traveling with spouse Matt. They recently returned from Bulgaria, Romania and Salzburg. Next will be a visit to her 91-year old mother in Wisconsin. Locally, they travel by bus and BART. 

Most people are unaware that for years she has coped with Otosclerosis , a hardening of the stapes (or stirrup) in the middle ear causing conductive hearing loss. She has two digital hearing aids consisting of behind-the-ear attachments to the inner ear. She is a participant in an experimental research program at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Her contribution to finding a cure involves regular audiograms and carrying an ID much like the designator on one’s driver’s license authorizing donation of body parts under the Anatomical Gift Act. 

A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Ryan moved to Pasadena after earning her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin, majoring in psychology, criminology and social welfare. She is a great walker, but while in the Redwoods recently was bitten by a tick. Complications led to an antibiotic Rx. She has not had a “pneumonia shot.” Ryan has opted to start Medicare at age 65. She does not have a DNR (“Do not resuscitate.”) 

She is currently reading Nadine Gordimer’s novel A sport of nature, and recently, The Appointment, Herda Muller’s novel about Romanian women, which is, she says, “mostly about what everyday life was like in Communist Romania and about a woman and her appointments with the secret police.” She’s a member of neither the Gray Panthers nor AARP. She raves about an art course she attended-- part of the University of California, Berkeley’s summer program for senior citizen auditors. 

Ryan used to get up at 6 A.M. -– now it’s 7 A.M. “I’m a morning person.” She is involved in volunteer works reflecting her interest in behalf of and working with young people. English-in-Action (EIA), Lit Pal, and at the Oxford Elementary School -- after school math, 3rd and 5th grade reading. EIA is part of a nationwide program in which volunteers give their time to tutor University of California students and visiting scholars in English on a one-to-one basis. And she sews costumes for California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) although modestly describing her contribution as “… mostly repair, help alter, or sort costumes.”  

The Area Agency on Aging (AAA) is the local arm of the national aging network. Federal, state, local governments and private agencies work together to advance the social and economic health and well-being of elders (60 and over) in Alameda County. Implementation of the Older Americans Act and enforcement of elder abuse statutes are examples of AAA’s scope. The AAA hosts a bi-monthly Information and Assistance Roundtable meeting and provides free Information by telephone (800-510-2020 or 510-577-3530). An Advisory Commission on Aging (ACA), consisting of appointed representatives concerned about the needs and interests of elders in Alameda County, works with AAA staff to develop, plan and administer programs designed to assist elders and their caregivers. 

Louis Labat worked in behalf of both providers (Roundtable) and seniors (Information and Assistance). We first met when I was appointed to the ACA, one of his numerous responsibilities. Recipients of grants awarded to such local agencies as Legal Assistance for Seniors (LAS) and senior centers required his annual visit, and he would invite volunteers from the ACA membership to accompany him. I went along on visits to the Albany Senior Center and to LAS. And when we Save Section 8 pioneers under Helen Lima’s leadership picketed an Oakland apartment house that was hassling tenants, he showed up.  

Labat was born and grew up in New Orleans. In 1964, following discharge from the U.S. Air Force, he began working for Alameda County. After graduation from the University of San Francisco, he became a social worker in the AFDC program. To pursue his dream of working with elders, he earned his M.S.W. in 1972 from the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in gerontology. From 1972-76 he established a gerontology program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. With the Senior Coordinating Council of Palo Alto, he helped develop the downtown Palo Alto senior center, and in 1980, returned to the AAA.  

Labat is an AARP member. He has a daughter and three great grand children in Ohio. In the years since retirement, he has visited Maui and moved to Emeryville, where he is active in the senior center and commission on aging. (Check out the Emeryville Senior Center’s monthly newsletter – The Link.) He does not frequent a public library (Emeryville does not yet have a public library,) instead buys books and receives them as gifts. He’s currently reading Frederick Douglass’ (1818-1895) “My bondage and my freedom.” He enjoys TV mysteries, PBS, CNN, Masterpiece Theater. 

Several prescription medications support hypertension and cholesterol problems. He is coping with an ongoing health problem that several middle-aged and senior citizens have recently reported; it resembles pneumonia cum viral infection. He has had the pneumonia immunization. 

When he retired, Louis Labat commented “The … years with the AAA have enabled me to associate with some of the most fascinating folks in my professional career. I enjoyed helping plan the 1980 local and state White House Conference on Aging and attending the 1981 White House Conference on Aging as an official observer. It has been an exciting 31 years!” Lasbat attended the very first Senior Rally in Sacramento – in 1971 – and continued working on the Senior Rally each May. 


Two weeks left to win more voters to support SB 810 and to influence Sacramento legislators and an Assembly vote for the California Universal Health Care Act. SB 810 must be sent to the Governor by August 31.  

Attention, candidates… Running for election in the November election? You are invited to email to Senior Power ( a statement of your “platform” concerns regarding senior citizens. If you are running for re-election, please describe the highlights of your record on issues important to seniors.