Margie Pezzaglia, right, with Ashby Village volunteer driver and friend Kris Owens. (Jenee Darden/KQED )
My 84-year-old grandfather surprised me when he picked up the phone on Friday night. He and my stepgrandmother are usually out on the town or out of town. I called to invite them to a blues concert at Yoshi’s next month.
“Grandpa, it’s on a Monday night if that’s OK,” I said. He replied, “Baby, I could go tonight! Monday night is fine.”
Like the Jill Scott song, my grandparents are living life like it’s golden. They hike, travel, go camping and visit friends. They’re in fairly good health and live in a neighborhood where stores are close to their home. When they don’t feel like driving, BART is a short walk away. I know other seniors aren’t as fortunate. This all made me think about how I want to live in my senior years. Like many people, I want to be active, healthy and residing in a community that accommodates my elderly needs.
“We need to look around at older adults living among us and ask ourselves: How do we want to live in the community when we are old?” said Ofra Paz, executive director of DayBreak Adult Care Centers in Oakland. “And we need to start treating the seniors among us the way we would like to be treated when we are getting there.”
There is a rapid increase in our senior population, thanks to the baby boomers, so many cities are preparing to be more age-friendly in response.
"Age-friendly is a community that really respects older adults and reflects their talents, their needs, and gives them a voice where they can participate in the world around them," says UC Berkley Professor Andrew Scharlach. "It’s also having some basic things, like getting to where you need to go, living somewhere where you don’t have to go up and down a bunch of stairs, being able to have people around you who care about you."
Cities around the world, including Berkeley and San Francisco, are looking into ways to be more age-friendly by addressing the affordable housing crisis, providing low-cost public transportation, keeping seniors active and engaged in the community, as well as improving access to health care and other issues.
The urgency to make our cities more age-friendly is a public health concern, according to Cathy Spensley, co-chair of Aging and Disability Friendly SF. She says we’re going to see large populations of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s in the future.
“There’s a big lack of housing and support for those folks,” Spensley said. “We also have a large population of older adults who live alone and do not have family to live here as caregivers. So, we’re really looking at kind of a crisis situation, unless we figure out how to make our city more age- and disability-friendly. "
Steve Lustig is a retired UC Berkeley professor working on Berkeley’s age-friendly plans. He warned that we either act now or pay the price in the future.
“The [younger] population is smaller than the aging population, “ said Lustig. “So if the aging population has a lot of needs that the community hasn’t planned on, there’s only so much in the bucket to go around. Something else has to be cut. I worry about that competition.”
When it comes to being more age-friendly, cities can look for examples at senior villages like Ashby Village in Berkeley. Senior villages are nonprofit organizations that members pay to receive services. Members live at home, but villages provide them activities, volunteer drivers, support during health appointments and more. Lustig is a board member for Ashby Village. Executive Director Andy Gaines remains hopeful about our age-friendly future.
He said, “I feel like we’re moving towards a special new time where some of the long-term perceptions of ageism are countered. We created a different understanding and welcoming embrace of what can happen in the later years. “
A visit to Ashby Village’s afternoon tea opened my eyes. The tea was for members in their 90s, and about 30 people were the guests of honor. They were energized, talkative, sharp and still had dreams. One woman told me she wants to write a book. Good genes may play a role in their vitality, but they say access to support does, too.
Margie Pezzaglia is a 95-year-old retired schoolteacher and self-proclaimed “party girl.” She utilizes the village for such services as being driven to her hair appointments. Even at 95 with a walker, she loves the village’s social scene.
“It’s important to get out. Otherwise you get very stagnant,” she told me. “This way you meet new people and you learn new things. And you keep active.”
If I’m fortunate to live as long as Margie Pezzaglia or my cool grandparents, I hope the party doesn’t stop for me either.