Redwood Coast Senior Center

  • Post published:June 2, 2024

 

 

The inviting entrance hallway at Redwood Coast Seniors leads past The Attic thrift shop, the activity room, and the office toward the community room where lunch awaits. Photo: Zida Borcich

 

I’m walking out of Redwood Coast Seniors in Fort Bragg as a crowd assembles behind a bottleneck at the front entrance just before lunchtime. I make my way past what looks like the beginning of a madcap party and am struck by the feeling of familiarity and jocular camaraderie among the lineup of gray-haired revelers. “Hi, how ya doin’? Make way! Hey, come on in, the lunch is fine!” Old friends chat, joke, rib, and greet each other, smile and express a welcoming kindness as they move past the door, up the stairs, and along a wide hallway toward the spacious dining room. Lunch is wafting tantalizing aromas around the splendid old building. I get a feeling that the heart of the Senior Center, which turned fifty last year, is where the elders of this coastal community are nurtured in a culture not just of tolerance or duty, but a full embrace of and respect for every form of individuality, a culture that has evolved over five decades into a heartfelt gratefulness for the institution and for each other. This feeling of inclusion and appreciation only expanded as I visited the Center several times while working on this story. The Senior Center has a beating heart filled with compassion, skill, fun, good food, good intentions, history, friendship, and companionship.

THE DEMOGRAPHIC BULGE

In 2030, just six years from now, the entire generation known as Baby Boomers will be over the age of sixty-five. Born between 1946 and 1965, this population explosion followed the exciting, productive years right after World War II ended. Baby Boomers make up one of the largest generations in history, followed by a subsequent population expansion when Boomers launched their own families. According to the census.gov website, “At an estimated seventy-three million, this generation is the second-largest age group after their children, the millennials,” born between 1982 and 2000.”
Since the last census was taken in the U.S., in 2010, about ten thousand people a day have crossed the threshold of sixty-five into the official “senior citizen” category, producing a significant impact on social services, healthcare, and the economy as people retire, experience age-related infirmities, or reduced financial security. One of the most concerning effects of aging is depression caused by loneliness and lack of purpose. Some folks are feeling overwhelmed by being in a “sandwich” generation—taking care of aging parents while also caring for their adult children or grandchildren; others are grieving the loss of a spouse or friends; and more than a few were unprepared for the extra time retirement would free up and can’t seem to find enough to keep them occupied. Elders sometimes find it hard to make new friends when they fulfill their long-time dream of retiring to a new area. Some are homebound or unwell. Some are caring for relatives with dementia or other disorders (see Cynthia Wall’s story on page 14). Loneliness among seniors was covered in the May 2024 column by Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP Bulletin, titled, “Staying Connected Is a Key to Healthy Aging.”
Before reading her piece, I wasn’t aware that President John F. Kennedy had designated the month of May “Older Americans Month” more than sixty years ago, nor that the U.S. government had declared this year’s theme “Powered by Connection” to “call attention to the profound link between staying in touch with other people and emotional and mental health.” She conveyed U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s urgent message that “America is in the throes of an epidemic of isolation,” citing research that shows that something like one out of two American adults report experiencing loneliness. Alarmingly, Murthy called loneliness an “underappreciated” public health crisis that is associated with a 30 percent increase in risk for heart attacks and strokes, and a 50 percent increased risk for dementia.
American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has recognized the importance of staying connected with others as we age and has put many programs in place to help seniors avert the loneliness epidemic, but may I just say that here in Fort Bragg, problems associated with aging were recognized and addressed way back in 1973 by a local firebrand, Bea Erickson. Bea was famously a force to be reckoned with, serving on multiple boards, and heading up a bunch of clubs. Recognizing the importance of serving the growing population of older people, she threw her estimable energies into creating a senior center in Fort Bragg. Even before she started researching and canvassing local elders about their needs and wants, Congress had passed the Older Americans Act (OAA) in 1965 in response to anxiety by policymakers about the lack of social services for the aged. The federal legislation authorized grants to states for community planning and social services, research and development projects, and personnel training in the field of aging, and Erickson in Fort Bragg, along with a couple of other movers and shakers—Emily Medina from Kelseyville and Lynetta Jones from Ukiah—got busy establishing their communities’ centers for seniors. A big boost came when the Board of Supervisors set aside $100,000, a princely sum in those days, for all the senior services programs in the county, and that really got the ball rolling for the Bea Erickson Senior Center, now known as Redwood Coast Seniors. The original idea was to help the elderly poor, frail, and ill, but over the years, services have evolved and expanded to include much more, as evidenced by the panoply of programs available at Redwood Coast Seniors today.
The bumper sticker declares, “Getting old ain’t for sissies,” and it seems a joke with a not-so-funny core of truth. But even when that’s sometimes the case, the dynamic Baby Boomer generation knows it sparked a revolution in this world. Boomers have exerted considerable influence nationally and globally, on issues ranging from politics to social mores, personal style to cultural trends, art, music, technology, science, retail sales, and travel, education, parenting, and ecological consciousness…actually, on just about everything. Inversely, the “demographic bulge” caused by the Baby Boom generation has been a source of concern—particularly as it ages into the seventies, eighties and beyond—to governmental agencies, medical practitioners, hospitals, retailers, plastic surgeons, gerontologists, organizations that deal with aging…actually, yes, on just about everything.
Even now, the older population is impossible to dismiss as it moves into the proverbial “fourth quarter.” Boomers are still exerting an influence on the world in myriad areas. They are the ones deciding when they want to quit dying their hair and are boldly bringing the inevitable into the light by instigating conversations about actual dying at groups such as Death Cafés. They are still driving movements…to stop global warming, to get to zero waste, finding love after divorce or widowhood, improving their nutrition through growing their own or buying organic foods, and they are politically active, joining marches and postcard-writing activism to influence voters. Toughened by growing up with grandparents and parents who lived through the Great Depression, Boomers know how to pinch a penny and still live it up, know how to meet an achy joint head on and keep on gardening despite it, know how to love their kids and inspire a grandkid to take a carburetor apart and put it back together, how to meet friends for pickleball, a quilting bee, or lunch at the Senior Center with aplomb and great enjoyment. They are meeting the changes and challenges of elderhood head-on.
The attitude is that life is more precious every week, and life is for living: the energy is high for making the most of the time left to them/us, as exemplified by a quote I saw in that recent AARP Bulletin by the anthropologist Donald Johanson, who fifty years ago discovered Lucy, the fossil that changed the way we see our common ancestry. He is eighty now, active, curious, and joyful. He said, “I wake up loving every day. I feel we’ve been given this incredible opportunity to be alive. We all need to embrace this gift of being born human and find our passions.” It’s a Baby Boomer attitude.

POPULATION, POPULATION
The aging of the Baby Boom generation is far from being matched by a youth boom, and the lowered birthrate is not providing enough workers to care for its elders. Several factors are at play. Statistics gleaned from the U.S. census website tell the story:
· The number of people aged sixty-five and older in the U.S. grew from three million, in 1900, to thirty-five million, in 2000.
· In 2018, there were fifty-two million people aged sixty-five and older, according to the Census Bureau’s “Vintage Population Estimates”: that share of the population jumped from 12.4 percent in 2000 to 16.0 percent in 2018.
· Additionally, we all began to live longer, mostly because of better health care: Life expectancy beyond age sixty-five went from an average lifespan of seventy-seven years, in 1900­–1902, to around eighty-four years, in 2010, according to “An Aging World,” a Census Bureau report.
· Fertility rates are at a record low. The birth rate among young women in the U.S. is now 1.7 children per woman, below the 2.1 children needed to replace the population.
· Older adults are projected to outnumber children under age eighteen for the first time in U.S. history by 2034, according to Census Bureau projections.

RCS, A COMMUNITY UNTO ITSELF
Redwood Coast Seniors has been an innovative presence on the coast since its beginning, finding folks that need support and providing services that best suit their individual needs; figuring out what the center can do to make life for the older population healthier and happier in body and mind, and more vibrant socially. Although RCS has been here for five decades, much needed improvements have arrived with the leadership of the current director, another firebrand, Jill Rexrode. When she started, there was a bucket in the corner of her office to catch the rain that fell through the ceiling. “Everything was breaking!” she exclaimed. The extent of deferred maintenance on the stately old-growth redwood building, which was built in the very early nineteen hundreds, had reached a dangerous state, including the badly leaking roof, a long-condemned stove hood in the kitchen, a loud, easily interrupted, unworkable office setup, and uncountable other afflictions. Jill arrived with energy, drive, and the bona fides of a sixth-generation local. And she knew how to wear quite a few hats at one time. Her impressive resume included managing the construction of her own homes, as well as many years of management experience for local nonprofits, and as the business manager at Mendocino Coast Recreation and Park District. She brought along her multi-talented husband/volunteer, Dick Rexrode, who also knew a thing or two about how to get things done and wasn’t averse to Jill’s enrolling him in her schemes to get the building stabilized, beautified, and humming. Dick and volunteer helper, John Skinner, built a beautiful sound-proofing wall between the busy, loud hallway and the administrative offices. It’s an attractive wall that enhances the building’s good old bones. Redwood Investments was remodeling their office and donated two electric fireplaces, cozy chairs, and other fittings that brought a warm, updated feeling to the space. With reduced pricing and/or donated supplies from generous local businesses who appreciate the value of the center’s contributions to the community, along with a ton of volunteer help, Jill has gotten extensive repair work done and transformed the center into a welcoming model of efficiency, comfort, and fun.
Shortly after Jill started, RSC received a generous donation, in 2018, which enabled the center to start major capital improvements. Then she got a surprising call from a philanthropic business in the Bay Area offering a $25,000 anonymous gift from some people who visited Fort Bragg often and wanted to support the senior center. Jill made good use of the gifts by replacing leaking pipes, rotted floor joists and siding, the decrepit roof, and falling-apart windows. She put in new flooring throughout, a new fire suppression system, a new ADA ramp (termites got the old one), and remodeled the entrance. Rick Bressler, a remarkable garden volunteer, solicited donations for wood and compost from local businesses to build the infrastructure of the “Gratitude Garden.”
Jill and some center volunteers are in the process of remaking the vegetable garden at the front of the building into an Edenesque vision. RCS depends on volunteers to run the operation smoothly, and it always needs more. Her husband built a wooden raised bed high enough for people in wheelchairs to weed and plant, and Cold Creek Compost in Ukiah gave the center ten yards of rich compost. The garden supplies some of the fresh produce for the kitchen and is a lovely space to garden, stroll, visit with friends, or meditate. Volunteers have a lot of fun together, make new friends, and feel good about helping their neighbors.

LUNCH, ANYONE?

The dining room is at the core of RCS’s mission. It serves lunch to more than a hundred seniors, five days a week. There is no charge, although a voluntary donation of five dollars is suggested. Lunchtime is a hubbub of bantering diners, freshly made, nutritious food, and friendly servers pushing carts of food, desserts, coffee and beverages around the spacious, laughter- and light-filled hall. Mark Safron frequents the dining room often and says, “You can eat here more cheaply than you can cook lunch at home…And it’s good!” Additionally, the kitchen delivers one hundred and twenty hot meals to homebound elders through the Meals on Wheels program three days a week. For the off days and weekends, the paid kitchen staff of five supplies frozen portions for Meals on Wheels volunteer drivers to deliver to clients who are unable to get to the center. No one goes hungry. There are four Meals on Wheels routes around Fort Bragg, and drivers are not just dashing in and out of people’s homes with meals. They provide a bit of friendly conversation and news from the outside world for shut-in clients and pick up on how clients are doing. But wait—there’s more! RCS also offers “Front Door Pickup” on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This program started during the pandemic and still supplies about twenty-five meals for clients who aren’t ready to return to a crowd. And the RCS kitchen coordinates with the Presbyterian Church to serve Easter dinner, too. Highly praised desserts are made each day by Rosa Valenzuela. Servers, bussers, dishwashers, drivers, and other workers in the dining room are all volunteers who go through ServSafe Food Handling certified food service training. To see if you qualify for the Meals on Wheels program, or if you would like to become a volunteer driver, call Rose Matson: 707.961.4305.

MUCH MORE THAN LUNCH
DAY PROGRAM: RCS offers an impressive array of activities and services. One of the most important of their offerings is the Alzheimer’s Day Program. Tuesdays through Fridays from ten in the morning to two in the afternoon, clients with cognitive decline can socialize and participate in fun activities while their caregivers get a bit of respite and time to do errands. The program, run by Roshan Ashford, is a compassionate lifeline for people with dementia and their helpers.
PEER COUNSELING: Changing life circumstances can precipitate emotional turmoil as people age. Depression, loneliness, illness, grief, and loss can be eased by talking with a trained empathetic listener. One of RCS’s extensively educated Senior Peer Counselors can offer support and encouragement to help navigate the storm, and many RCS members have gone through rigorous training with a licensed therapist. Contact Helen Jacobs 707.961.4310 for more information. Inquiries are confidential.
PAYEE REPRESENTATIVE: RCS has personnel who can help with personal financial management like paying bills, program screening, general information, and referrals for accessing other support. It’s done through CalFresh, a state-run program for low-income people who meet federal income eligibility rules and want to augment their budgets and vitality by putting healthy, affordable food on the table. Call Rose Matson at 707.961.4305 for more information.
FRIENDLY VISITOR PROGRAM: The program’s coordinator recruits, vets, and trains volunteers to be Friendly Visitors who meet once a week with a compatible senior to spice up the sociability quotient for people who live alone. These visits can be in-home, or can include excursions like a walk on the beach or a coffee date. You can be a friendly visitor and you can have a friendly visitor. Call Natalie Mahaffey at 707.961.4312 to get hooked up!
ATTIC THRIFT SHOP: The Attic is RCS’s beautifully merchandised thrift shop. Arwen Hebden manages it with a special flair for design and her joyful, exuberant personality. Her displays are vignettes that beautifully showcase the merchandise, which ranges from heirloom China dinnerware sets to men’s and women’s clothing to a well-curated library of used books…and very much more. It’s open Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. “It’s the nicest thrift shop in town! I find something new every time I go in,” enthused one happy customer.
Director Jill Rexrode wished for an events and activities coordinator and in waltzed Jennie Stevens looking for that position! Jennie came ready to party and her calendar on the RCS website is jammed with fun-for-everyone doings. Here is the first entry:
Fourth Friday Food Trucks: June 28, July 26, August 23, 2024, 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. All ages community party! Local Food Vendors, Live Music, Beer & Wine! Cornhole and Pickleball lessons. Festivities begin at 5:00 p.m. Enjoy delicious food, beer, and wine while listening to live music outdoors at the Center.
There’s also Wake Up & Walk Wednesdays, which gets going at 8:30 a.m. at the center with coffee and muffins. Exercise Classes are held Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and Ping Pong players meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. For crafters, there is the Knit Wits Knitting Club on Tuesdays mornings, and the Ocean Wave Quilters meet on Tuesdays at 1:00 p.m. and every second Sunday at noon. Beginners are welcome. Not to be outdone, the Ukulele Group meets on Mondays from 2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and they welcome beginners, too. There are ongoing activities as well, like the Spring Dance that happened on May 10 and the Robert Goleman Magic and Mentalism show on May 25 that was quickly sold out. See the RCS website for more information and times.

THEY THOUGHT OF EVERYTHING
Redwood Coast Seniors has been a resource and a beacon for coast elders since Bea Erickson got a bee in her bonnet in 1973 and the community got behind her and pushed it into existence. The center has had to evolve with the times, has survived many shifts in membership and leadership, and sometimes had to overcome difficult circumstances, but here it is fifty years on, not just surviving, but thriving. In a world that trumpets the “plight” of lonely seniors, RCS asks, “What is wanted and needed here?” and quietly goes about remedying situations creatively and compassionately. RCS is coast seniors by, with, and for coast seniors.
And loneliness is not on the menu. REM

Find RCS at 490 North Harold Street in Fort Bragg, CA 95437 | 707.964.0443 | www.rcscenter.org
If you would like to donate to this worthy cause, go to rcscenter.org. And think of them when doing estate planning, as well. Jill Rexrode is happy to brainstorm: 707.961.4317.