The stages of life are many. Baby, toddler, adolescent, teen, young adult, adult … and senior. AARP defines us as seniors at fifty, but they are bringing us into the fold early, so that they have us by the gray hairs when it comes time to buy supplemental Medicare insurance.
Being more realistic, senior life begins at around sixty, more or less. It can conceivably include four decades of decline, or growth, depending upon ability, desire, and what is available to meet needs. At sixty-five, I was living in Montana. It was then that I became active in peer support. I was appointed to the city’s senior advisory board and ultimately voted chair. This board had actual powers. It brought the needs of the city’s seniors to the city council for action, and usually got it.
The Bozeman Senior Center meets the needs of active seniors, as well as those who have slowed down a bit. It is spacious and beautiful. The dining room is huge, and we often had entertainers up on the stage during meals. We held bazaars and pot lucks and special events. Most of the large lower level is used for exercise classes, yoga, drum circles and other indoor activities. The walls are lined with mirrors, and ballet bars are installed around the room so that members can check their moves and/or hold on for security. The floor is made of recycled tires that are easy on old feet and legs. It is large enough to accommodate everyone who wants to be there.
In many ways, Williamstown is like Bozeman. It is a safe place to live, the outdoor spaces wonderful, and there are resources. The difference is that in Bozeman, outdoor activities were part of the program, including hikes in Yellowstone. Here, they are not.
The Center offered a communal lunch that was well-attended. Afterward, we played cards or board games and watched the snow pile up outside. In Williamstown, there is no communal lunch. It was suspended more than a year ago.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”George Bernard Shaw
Like Bozeman, we have a longish winter. Lunch for seniors isn’t just about the food. It’s also, and often more importantly, about community. It can be the brightest spot in the day for an older man or woman with no car, no money, and no family close by. Or worse, add to that, who uses a walker, a wheelchair, has diminished sight and/or hearing, and a chronic disease. If they can get there.
Meals on Wheels is available, and often it is the sight of the person who delivers it that makes an old, frail person happiest. Winters are long, and this one is going to be a bitch. People who live alone have stayed at home. Common areas in senior housing complexes are closed because of COVID-19, resulting in extreme isolation. Those who are more able to do what they can to keep others connected, but many are forgotten or ignored as long as the rent check is on time. For some folks, their only contact with the outside world will be the food delivery person and the worker who comes in a couple of times a week to clean, do laundry, and maybe help with a shower or other personal care.
Think about the isolation you have felt during the passed six months. Now imagine that is your life as an elder every day, month after month, year after year. And imagine that life without Facebook, video games, Netflix, Hulu, because many seniors do not have these distractions, often because they can’t afford them, other times because they were never part of the digital age in the first place.
Hopefully, winter won’t hang around too long, and there will be advancements in the containment and treatment of COVID-19. Seniors look forward to the warmer days of spring and summer, even if it means they can seldom go any further than the lawn chair on the grass beneath their window. This is the time when trips to the park, free concerts, the farm market, or mall could brighten a week. To many of us, these little trips are taken for granted. But for a person without transportation, they are often available only when a senior center or municipal board charged with such things arranges them and provides transportation, which they don’t and don’t have in Williamstown. Often, the only rides seniors take are to and from the doctor’s office or hospital.
I lived in Shelburne Falls before coming to Williamstown. Activities offered there included a boat trip on the Connecticut River on a vessel designed to resemble the African Queen, complete with a guide who pointed out the history of the river and the nesting of the bald eagles. One trip took a group zip lining in Charlemont and another river rafting on the Deerfield. Activities were planned for different age and ability levels. You could stay at the center and play bingo, or you could board a bus and head out to a destination.
The Shelburne Senior Center, like many others, also maintains a website https://the-senior-center.org/ It provides information about all the activities and resources available, a calendar, menus, etc. It is kept up-to-date and includes the agendas and minutes of the Board of Directors. The senior population of Williamstown is growing, but there is no Harper Center website or link to the activities of our board. Nothing, nada, zip.
Unless Williamstown officials step up, our seniors will continue to lack access to the kinds of activities and community available to their peers around the globe.
Playgrounds for elders began to take off after China mandated fitness programs for all ages. In the decades since, multigenerational or senior fitness parks have been built globally. I understand that there are some in large cities in the United States, but I have never seen one. In Barcelona, Spain alone, there are more than 300 senior playgrounds. These parks include games like horseshoes and bocce, and equipment such as stationary bikes, striders and leg presses. Walking paths are lined with benches and gardens. Gazebos and pavilions are included for picnics and for cover. Google “senior playgrounds” and see the possibilities. Notice that everyone is smiling or laughing. And as part of a city or town’s recreation plan, they are available to all seniors at no cost.
Consider what options you would like to see for yourself as you age, in whatever town you happen to live. I personally would like to see (and would participate in) a fundraising campaign to build a new and adequate senior center in Williamstown, with all the bells and whistles, whether they be fitness, technology, dining, activities, etc., with at least one new bus dedicated to taking groups of 20 or so on day trips. Maybe with outdoor fitness options. It would be useful to circulate a questionnaire to town seniors who could share their ideas for enriching their third age. After all, they are the experts.
Sheila Velazquez is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in more than 100 print newspapers and magazines, including Grit, New Woman, the Hartford Courant, the New Haven Register, the San Antonio Express-News and Bay Area Parent. Her awards include two from the Society of Professional Journalists for a syndicated column. Sheila has contributed to online websites, including commondreams.org and dissidentvoice.org. She served as contributing editor of Organic Producer magazine and wrote biographical material for reference collections that include “Contemporary Authors,” the “Encyclopedia of International Biography” and “Notable Sports Figures.” Feel free to send her an e-mail.