A Working Community for Single Retired Adults
Based on many studies, agencies, educational institutions and healthcare organizations, lack a clear understanding of the role, relevance and future impact of senior centers in America. Also the general population has a negative image of so called senior centers since, with some notable exceptions, they only offer a lunch and have limited hours of programming and operation. Seniors who might have some unexpressed needs and might be interested in program participation view these senior centers as being for “older” people with disabilities or low‐income, not for them.
In New York City, the senior center was developed in 1943. To quote directly from the 1998 senior centers study,” It is time that the city seizes the opportunity to support, re‐design, re‐conceptualize and innovate senior centers for the new millennium. New York City can once again be at the forefront for defining the new model of an urban senior center” I propose that a strength based, senior working community program is that new model.
A “Working Community” is not just a social center, it is a place that focuses on the strengths of its senior membership and provides them with the opportunity to get assistance and to give assistance. A pragmatic interchange that offers solutions, preserves dignity and satisfies the need we all have to be needed. ” Ask, what can a working community do for you, but also ask, what can I do for the working community.” This play on JFK’s unrequited revolutionary challenge is the theme of the intentionally created working community I am proposing we adopt.
The creation of a working community is both an alternative to the senior center and a call for a new way of thinking about seniors, as productive members of society. In a “working community”, the senior member, is asked to actively participate by sharing their labor and their skills for the benefit of the other community members. They are also asked to participate in activities that improve the efficiency of the community itself and the society in which their community resides. The premise being, that when retired seniors belong to a community of their peers and give needed service to that community and through joint projects the society in which that community resides, the feeling of being relevant is stimulated and satisfied. The ” Working Community” can then become a place where seniors continue their lives as creators and contributors, not just recipients of service. In this respect, the principles imbedded in Working Community for single seniors can to be thought of as a revolution in thinking about the role of the senior in society. A new role that can change societies expectations of who seniors are and what they can do. A change in societies attitudes, which offers dignity and respect for seniors and which comes at a time when so many more of us will reach senior status and be in that status for longer and longer periods.
The real struggle of old age, beyond finances and physical infirmity, is to leave a legacy, to teach, to be respected for accomplishments and to have the opportunity to do relevant things for others. Single Senior Citizens or single retired adults (the terminology I prefer) suffer losses in relationships and in levels of functioning in addition to the belief that they not really needed. A belief that leads to depression and other diseases that number depleted energy as a primary symptom. In a Working Community each senior is asked to participate as both a volunteer offering service and as a member, the recipient of service. The assumption being that by simultaneously wearing these two hats each senior participant is in a position to satisfy their physical needs, their social and relational needs, their belonging needs and their need to be needed.
After Gert’s husband passed, it was suggested that she attend a senior center. The place served lunch during the week and offered occasional trips, card games and bingo. It was a depressing environment that by virtue of its lack of program variety, communicated a lack of interest in or respect for its members. The clear message that was communicated to the seniors, and observers alike, was that participants had little value to offer anybody. I’m sure some in attendance got the companionship they craved, and it was a respite from the loneliness endemic to this mostly single group. There was the nourishing and inexpensive lunch. But to me, the center remained a flat, dingy, uninteresting place attended by people I felt sorry for.
Gert was a bright, attractive woman in her early eighties. She was a published author, had a masters degree in English literature, had been a manager of numerous housing projects and then a supervisor of other managers in the NYC housing authority. Given my background in programs that create a need for client participation and emphasize empowerment, I was upset that a woman with Gert’s caring nature, background, skills and abilities, although loved by me and her children, was not needed at home or in any capacity at the senior center. I was truly concerned for her. Although my wife and I and the rest of her family spent a lot of quality time with her, I could not help wondering if she wouldn’t have been happier were she involved someplace where her skills would be valued.
I began wondering what a program for seniors would look like if was based on needing the help of its membership, a practice that was important in creating the highly effective Fountain House working community program. As a matter of fact, I wrote a proposal that featured groups led by senior center members. Groups that focused on transportation, computer instruction, a dating service and a book club. Groups my mother in law would have appreciated being a part of. As an author and former English teacher she would have loved teaching any subject related to verbal expression or the written word. Subjects that could have been useful to many of the old world immigrant seniors who attended the center. For that matter, she could have been extremely useful as an English tutor to students of any age. In any event, after a number of years, she went to live in a beautifully appointed assisted living facility where she and the many other seniors, lucky enough to be able to afford such an opulent facility, spent their days being entertained, waiting for family visits and in some cases worrying about what would happen to them if they were to outlive their money. I remember fantasizing about what would happen if this grand assisted living facility would start thinking about how to really help its residents. How to help them feel relevant in the world. Give them a reason to get up in the morning other than to have their hair and nails done.
Much like Barbara, my wife and me, my mom and dad were a team. It’s not that they did everything together. It’s that they supplemented each others weaknesses and were comfortable in their predetermined, sex based roles. When my mom died, my father, Israel, not only lost a companion and the love of his life, he lost a cook, cleaning lady and bill payer. Activities, he had little experience in doing or inclination to learn about. Physical disabilities and the death of friends started him on the road to decline. These losses exacerbated his tendency to promote guilt in his children for not fulfilling his expectations. This left an otherwise loving man angry, and frustrated. An irritation initiated by his wife for the crime of dying, and abandoning him. When he arrived in Florida he helped create a local synagogue. His skill as a hands on general contractor was needed and appreciated by that synagogue. The work he did for them gave him a feeling of pride, community, belonging and accomplishment that he relished and often spoke about. His activities there ended about three years before my mother died. I believe, it was this double whammy that set him adrift. Although he still belonged to a family and to a synagogue, he was no longer needed by them in any concrete way. My father, as do other single older adults, suffered losses in relationships and level of functioning caused, in part, by not feeling significant in the world. An unfulfilled biological need that can lower mood, if not create outright depression. I believe the loss of being needed was responsible for some of the emotional pain and even some of the physical disability, he was experiencing and there was little I was able to do about it. A sad commentary on what befalls many retired single seniors.
The Role of Leadership at a Senior Center
The staff worker in a senior working community is a social practitioner, a generalist who plays many roles and functions in many different capacities. Regardless of the role social practitioners play at any given time they maintain a leadership position, a collegial relationship and a focus on the skills and abilities of working community members. The focus on the skills and abilities of senior members is crucial to programatic success. A success based on the need staff have for the collaborative assistance of the membership. The social practitioner practices shared leadership in organizing the work, in making decisions, in creating new programs, in celebrating success, in motivating action and in teaching new skills. The job description of a social practitioner includes case management, individual coaching, program designing and consensus building . An advocate and enthusiast. A collaborator and a nurturer. A fund raiser and theoretician. A spokesperson and writer. A liaison to the general community and confidence builder to the individual member. The social practitioner in a senior working community is a passionate and dedicated leader offering a continuity of care and a continuity of relationships to a group of seniors on the forefront of social change.
The senior center, as presently constituted, implies a loss of power consistent with the prejudicial attitudes of our youth-oriented society and as such is completely unacceptable to baby boomers. Working Community for single retired adults offers the potential member participation in a revolutionary process that seeks to change society’s attitudes about seniors by creating communities that function in ways consistent with “normal work and social patterns”. On an individual level, personal power, human dignity and a real sense of control can only happen when mature retired adults are given the opportunity to create and help others. On a social level, when those helping and creative behaviors are expected by society and become the norm, revolution has occurred and both self and social attitudes are changed forever.