Story by Denny Cristales. Photo via www.longbeach.gov
The 97-year-old Winifred Carter welcomed and greeted seniors at her receptionist table as they shuffled into the Expo Arts Center on a recent Tuesday morning for another session of tai chi, a slow-paced meditative exercise from ancient China.
Carter said she always greets the elders with a smile as they sign in. If it isn’t her smile that makes attendees feel welcome, it’s the slight twinkle in her eye that makes the atmosphere feel a little more homey.
“We try to make them feel comfortable,” she said of the seniors. “It’s their home away from home. Some of the seniors don’t have anything to do and nowhere to go, and this is a place for them to come and enjoy themselves.”
The older adults gathered together as they got into their tai chi routine and were instructed to slowly breathe in and breathe out. For some, it’s the only time they get during the week to exercise and socialize.
With the aging of the baby boom generation, experts predict that a growing number of older people will live their retirement years alone and isolated, lacking any social interaction. In Long Beach, those 65-plus constitute 9.3 percent of the population, according to a 2015 U.S. Census report. The Expo Arts Center’s program, located in the 8th council district, is seeking to address the lack of programs and services available for older citizens.
The 8th district and the Senior Advisory Committee (SAC) launched senior programming activities at the center in October 2015. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the program offers a variety of exercise classes and guest speakers, along with arts and crafts. Carter teaches a class taught called “Knitting with Wini.”
The activities for seniors average 50 to 60 people each program day, and sometimes more, Carter said.
Carter, Gwendolyn Hill and Barbara Shoag are all part of the SAC who took one to two years to get the program off the ground, they said. Hill explained that 8th District Councilmember Al Austin sent a letter to her home asking her to volunteer.
In the mornings, Hill neatly assembles chairs in the middle of the room and prepares the area for all the activities. She is tasked with giving out announcements and heating water for tea or coffee.
Shoag affectionately called Hill the “glue that holds all of this together” for staying the entire session on both days from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., often staying longer to clean the space. Hill also transports Carter to and from the Expo Arts Center.
Hill insists this is all part of everybody’s role in the little community they have developed at the center.
“I do what I need to do,” she said. “It’s not just me, it’s everybody. We’re all a part of this.”
The social aspect of the program has allowed many residents to bond with one another, she added. For Hill, many of the seniors now know her interests and personality pretty well. For instance, they know Hill is quite the fan of lumpia, a Filipino egg roll.
“They bring them to me all the time, and I eat all of them,” she joked. “Once you get to know a person, you feel at ease. You feel comfortable. And, if you know something is wrong, you can go to that person… It’s like a family now. “
She detailed how one woman would attend the program and just sit. Her caregiver got her interested in joining in, and she loved it, Hill said. She recounted the woman’s comment, “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have anything to do.” Although the woman died last February, Hill said that the social interaction and the bonds she and other seniors develop make the program worthwhile at any point.
Hill told another story of a local woman whose husband died in August. She attends the program and plays Scrabble with one other woman when she comes to the center.
“Nobody else plays with them because they just want to play with each other,” Hill said. “And she’s gotten that little lady out of her box. She won’t stay home. She’ll come here for an hour or two hours and play Scrabble with her.”
Donna Bergeron-Birge, secretary of the SAC, said the seniors “laugh and cry and tell stories,” and that social context adds to their feeling of self-worth.
“They retire or they’re home alone, and I think they lose that sense of value,” she said. “By coming here and contributing and even helping in the smallest way — even if it’s just filling the water containers for paint or helping clean up or bringing a bag of beads for jewelry — those kind of things give them a sense of value and purpose… People just wither away without that.”