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City Heights Residents Create Roving Senior Center

It’s a way seniors can support each other and age in place

KPBS Evening Edition

In Lieu Of A Senior Center, City Heights Seniors Form Network Of Support

Video by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego.

Aired 11/6/15 on KPBS News.

Federal funding for senior services hasn't kept up with inflation thanks to stalled legislation. As their Baby Boomer neighbors age, a group of City Heights residents aren't waiting for lawmakers to catch up.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

San Diego County Senior Services Hotline: 1 (800) 510-2020

Twice a month older residents in a hilly, residential section of City Heights meet to play board games. This week, it's Mexican train, a game similar to dominoes.

Each neighbor takes turns hosting a game, while everyone else takes responsibility for snacks.

"When I got first involved (in Azalea Park) within the first year or two I kept asking, 'Where's the senior center?' And people would tell me, 'It's here, it's there, it's wherever,'" said Evie Kosower, 81. "There is none in City Heights."

Kosower moved to Azalea Park 12 years ago and helped form this sort of roving senior center.

She tried to campaign for a city-funded center a few years ago but hit a lot of roadblocks. So she began looking for an alternative to keep herself and her aging neighbors active and connected with needed services. The effort morphed into a group called Elders Living in Their Element.

Nationally, the concept is called "villages" or "aging in place." Senior neighbors band together to create membership organizations. They host events and classes, help each other around the house, and check in on neighbors who become sick.

There are already villages in Del Cerro, Del Mar and Scripps Ranch. Kosower wants the Azalea Park and Fairmount Park neighborhoods of City Heights to be next.

"Let's get this going in our neighborhood close to where we live and then it can also be supportive when people need the support, such as somebody falls down and so they’re having to stay home for a number of weeks while they're recuperating, they need some help shopping. People who are still traveling, it's nice to be able to get a ride to the airport," Kosower said.

Eventually the group would like to collect a small membership fee, which is common among such villages, and hire someone to keep them organized. Kosower envisions running a skills bank, where neighbors offer up skills like plumbing or mending in exchange for help when they need it next.

The group is in the early stages, but 78-year-old Agnes Conradt said she already sees the value of working together. She began living alone after her husband died from congestive heart failure last year.

Agnes Conradt and Evie Kosower play Mexican train with their neighbors, Oct. 12, 2015.

"Even though I was able to help my husband through his final illness and I felt that we were very fortunate, there are many things I've learned since working with this organization that I wish I had known," said Conradt, referring to a medicine delivery service.

But she said the more information she and Kosower uncover, the more service gaps they also find. Conradt said the biggest challenge she sees for herself in the future is transportation.

"We wanted to buy here because it's close to everything in San Diego. It's very easy to get around," Conradt said. "Of course now, you know, almost 50 years later, it's not easy to get around if you don't have a car."

Conradt lives in Fairmount Park, which is perched on a hill above Home Avenue. The roads are steep and windy. A city bus runs through the neighborhood, but transit services for the elderly don't.

Ellen Schmeding heads Aging and Independence Services at the county. She said there are a lot of good programs for elderly San Diegans, but they're more patchwork than seamless.

"We've made good strides in the area of transportation, but there's a long way to go," Schmeding said.

The county reaches out to residents and service providers every four years to create a roadmap for senior services. It's kind of like a scaled-down version of the San Diego Association of Government's regional plan. And it hosts a regular conference on aging. Schmeding said in the past the county has focused a lot on the safety and health of seniors, but next year will zero in on challenges related to transportation, housing and the built environment.

But much of the funding to address those challenges has flat lined in recent years.

The Older Americans Act spent its 50th birthday this year stalled in the House of Representatives. The law that pays for services for the elderly hasn't been reauthorized since 2011, and that means funding is flat as Baby Boomers age. Currently, the law provides about $175 per person annually.

"We may have to spend some time keeping ourselves well but that's OK. It doesn't mean we haven't anything to give back, we can't be useful." - Evie Kosower

"I think that as of now, the realization that more money needs to be invested given the rise in population just hasn't hit our decision makers really hard," Schmeding said.

Kosower said failing to support seniors is a missed opportunity.

"From my perspective, it's a lot of knowledge and expertise and energy that's being missed to somehow come back to the community by not having us organized well," Kosower said. "It's just kind of always been easy. Once you get out of the workforce, you're no longer an important citizen anymore and that's just not true, because we age well for a long time, many of us do. We may have to spend some time keeping ourselves well but that's OK. It doesn't mean we haven't anything to give back, we can't be useful."

Kosower said she hopes the City Heights village and others in San Diego can help set the pace for aging services while lawmakers count dollars and cents.

"It's kind of like it's up to us to start to do something and then try to pressure the other agencies, or at least let them know what we're doing and see if they can't help us," Kosower said.

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