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Elders in the United States Live on the Edge

As Baby Boomers enter old age in increasing numbers, the need for services for seniors is expected to grow.

Seattle – In a small brick building in sight of the Ballard Locks, which connect bodies of salt and fresh water in this Pacific Northwest city, the aroma of meatballs and tomato sauce wafts up the stairs. In about half an hour, 35 or so regulars at the Ballard NW Senior Center will dig into a meal of spaghetti with meatballs, salad and roasted zucchini, accompanied by lively conversation with their table mates.

Beverly Jaeger, 79, comes regularly for lunch. She lives a block away, and enjoys the center’s trips to see the daffodils up north, to museum exhibitions, even to the casino. “It gives me something to do. My kids are grown up,” Jaeger says.

Jaeger and her lunch companions offer a preview of the “age wave” that is just now beginning to hit as the so-called Baby Boom generation – the more than 75 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 – enters the retirement years. Ever since 2011, when the first Baby Boomer turned 65, more than 10,000 Americans celebrate that milestone birthday every single day. By 2030, demographers predict, fully one-fifth of the population will be 65 or older. Some estimate it could be 25 percent of all Americans by that year.

As Baby Boomers enter old age in increasing numbers, the need for services for seniors is expected to grow. In King County, which includes Seattle and smaller cities, the “age wave” has already arrived, according to a 2013 report from Seattle’s Aging and Disability Services agency.

“The 2010 Census indicates that 312,624 people age 60 and above now live in King County, up 30 percent since 2000,” according to the report. “By 2025, the number of King County residents over age 60 will exceed 496,000. Nearly one in four county residents will be age 65 or older.”

As the number of seniors grows, so does the wear-and-tear on old facilities like the one that houses the Ballard Center. The peeling paint and other signs of disrepair reflect not a lack of effort on the part of the center’s dedicated staff and administrators but a much larger issue: A national disregard for the rapidly growing senior population and an unwillingness on the part of a youth-obsessed culture to focus attention or resources on a group of people who, as Ballard Center Director Carlye Teel points out, “are looked at as a problem” rather than a resource and knowledge base.

Teel, 68, has been at the helm of what visitors call “the friendly center” for 30 years. She loves her work, but fundraising is a constant struggle. Teel and her staff struggle simply to meet the daily needs of the 4,000 elders who pass through each year. Some come every day the center is open, others just a few times a year. Taken together, these existing clients keep the place humming.

Teel knows that if she could get money to stay open on Saturdays, the center would be busy then too. As it stands, the center could use more social worker time, more classes. And then there are those outdated single-pane windows.

“We’re only going to be needing more and more services,” Teel points out. “People are living longer. We’re really stretched.”

“This Is Home”

Rose Cornicello discovered the Ballard Center about a decade ago. The 95-year-old, who moved from New Jersey to be close to her son, says she became a member the day she walked into the center, then worked as the receptionist for 10 years, until her eyesight began to fail.

“If you want a happier place than this – no,” she says, as tables fill in the dining area. “I just walked in here and said, ‘This is home.'”

In the arts and crafts room, half a dozen women listen intently to an instructor as they sketch and paint portraits. Down the tight hallway, a massage therapist finishes up an individual session, while a visiting nurse arrives so clients can get their blood pressure checked. In another room, a silver-haired man taps away at a computer in the lab, while a current events class goes on next door.

This 1950 former apartment building, which has housed the center for 43 years, is packed full of activities aimed at keeping older Seattle residents physically and mentally active. It also helps seniors do something that many say they want more than anything else: Remain in their own homes.

As jam-packed as the Ballard Center’s schedule appears, Teel says she’d love to offer more services to meet high demand. But funding for the nonprofit senior center depends greatly on how much money it can raise through events such as Rainbow Bingo, rummage sales and benefit concerts.

“Senior centers play a very important role in a community, and I wish every community had one,” Teel says, describing the benefits of a one-stop shop that provides health and wellness services, social work, educational classes and the “fun and games” of parties and trips.

“As good as some nursing homes are, we try to keep people out of them,” she says.

“Really Stretched”

Seven centers serve seniors in the King County area under the umbrella of Senior Services, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Seattle. Senior Services was formed in the late 1960s via United Way, which wanted to streamline the funding process for individual senior centers. These centers operate as independent nonprofits but affiliate with Senior Services for administrative functions.

Others senior centers in the area operate as programs of city parks and recreation departments, explains Joanne Donohue, vice president of community development for Senior Services. Still, others are standalone nonprofits that don’t have the support of a larger organization.

Each of the seven centers under the Senior Services umbrella has a distinct fundraising strategy, Donohue says. The Northshore Senior Center in Bothell, which is northeast of Seattle, for example, gets the bulk of its annual revenue by writing grants, she says. The West Seattle Senior Center has a thrift store on heavily trafficked California Avenue that brings in $160,000 a year. The Central Area Senior Center, which is in Seattle, has a beautiful view of Lake Washington, allowing it to raise money through facility rentals, Donohue says.

The Ballard Center gets a large chunk of its $500,000 annual budget from Senior Services and another from the city of Seattle. To raise the rest, Donohue says, they “work their butts off doing events all the time.”

Bringing “Glamour” and Bingo

On a recent summer evening, Sylvia O’Stayformore – who proudly boasts of being a “drag queen who used to go to punk shows” – walks into the Ballard Center and proclaims: “The glamour has begun.”

It’s Rainbow Bingo night.

O’Stayformore has been hosting bingo fundraisers at senior centers in the Seattle area for about eight years and can spend hours in traffic getting to each facility during rush hour. “But they give me a love gift,” O’Stayformore says of the bingo-loving crowds and elders. “I love it. I just show up and keep things stirring.”

By 7:15 p.m., white numbers on the center’s bingo board are flashing. People flip over special bottles to mark numbers on their bingo sheets, as O’Stayformore calls them out. Periodically, O’Stayformore – wearing a flowing green-and-blue dress, Cat-Eye glasses and blue eyeliner – sings before this crowd of about 100 people of all ages: “Are you ready? Are you ready? To play bingo?”

On this night, turnout is so good that center staff lug out an extra table and more chairs. As people play, O’Stayformore reminds the crowd about this bingo-for-a-cause event: Proceeds will go to keep the fans on and possibly could help get a new TV or two.

Helping O’Stayformore is Sister Paddleme Tooshie with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, The Abbey of St. Joan. Tooshie, who is wearing white makeup, a military-style cap and flowing red pants, points out the shoes beneath those pants are 7 1/2-inch platforms. As a result, Tooshie towers over everyone else in the room.

“This infuses new energy into these facilities,” O’Stayformore says of the festive night.

At almost every turn, when the bingo players of all ages see O’Stayformore and Tooshie, smiles and laughter fill the center’s meeting room. “I’ve worked all summer on my figure,” O’Stayformore says. “We’re here to wrangle you kids into some fun.”

“I want to support Ballard seniors,” Tooshie says. “This is my neighborhood. This will be my senior center.”

As people win, screams of joy fill the room. Hugs go around. People wad up their bingo sheets and fling them in the air. It’s old school fun – and fundraising – in the era of the iPhone.

More of these events will be needed soon.

Financially, Senior Services supports each of the seven independent nonprofit senior centers, but it expects next year, when United Way’s contribution is expected to drop by half, to be tight, Donohue says. “We’re bracing ourselves for a pretty significant cut next July.”

Centers’ Struggles Reflect National Priorities

Funding struggles for senior services aren’t unique to Seattle.

“It’s a country-wide phenomenon,” Donohue says. “It’s ageism, and people don’t want to think about death.”

Teel agrees. “I get very frustrated, to be honest,” she says. When people think about older adults, they think about expense. When they think about children, they think about an investment in the future.

Older Americans are not all “crotchety and sick,” she adds. “They give, and they give so much. We could still change the world.”

Senior Services is working to simplify its current relationship with the centers, transitioning all of the senior centers to a centralized governing board, with each center retaining an advisory board, rather than governing themselves separately. Another independent center or two might join the group.

“It’s really hard for a stand-alone senior center to make it,” Donohue says. “The funding climate is so competitive, and they’re never going to be able to get to the scale they need to attract funding.”

“Duct Tape Center”

Today, Teel refers to her “friendly center” as a “duct tape center” instead. In some places, paint is peeling, and the place could use a major lighting upgrade.

Under its lease with the city of Seattle, which owns the building, the Ballard Center doesn’t pay cash rent but since the Great Recession, it has been responsible for maintenance. (The city has contributed to some repairs in the past.) That means paying to fix things when they break, including a $4,200 bill for an elevator, Teel says. Plumbing and electrical work are also costly.

The city, for its part, recognizes the great need that the senior centers fill with all their services and has more than doubled its funding to them since 2012, according to Evan Clifthorne, legislative aide to City Councilman Tom Rasmussen. But the city also notes the funding struggle and the age of some of the buildings.

Discussions are ongoing about whether it makes sense to transfer ownership of any of the three city-owned senior center buildings to the entities that run them, and also whether a remodel could incorporate much-needed senior housing.

“They’re very old buildings that need a lot of work. I think that’s part of the discussion,” says Clifthorne. At the same time, “There’s a great need for housing for seniors throughout the city.”

Despite all the challenges, Ballard Center’s Teel says she loves her job and isn’t ready to retire because she can still make a difference in someone’s life.

During the lunch hour, as bowls of salad arrive at the tables, Teel makes the day’s announcements, reminding people that the visiting nurses are upstairs for blood pressure checks.

She asks if anyone has questions or comments, and gets no replies from the crowd.

“Not even a good rumor?” she jokes. “We’re slipping, people!”