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OLDER & BOLDER: My Personal Jaunt into Gerontology :-O surprise/:) raised eyebrows

Mental motivation is extra important as our years accumulate.


(SALEM, Ore.) - Who among us does not age? I have yet to meet that individual. Since I was raised in part by both sets of grandparents during WW II and beyond, I began to admire older folks many moons ago. It is no accident that after ten years of being a full-time journalist I switched course to become a gerontologist. That journey has been mighty fulfilling. It has included community organization, counseling, and training students in geriatric social work practice.

As I turn 70 this month, it's the ideal time to reflect back. I'd like to share with special friends some of my activities in gerontology over the past 35 years. It all began in Jamaica, NY, where I founded the Rochdale Senior Center. That year was 1975.

My initial challenge was to unify the senior community in Rochdale, a huge co-op near Kennedy Airport. There were three competitive senior groups at the time and all of them viewed us as intruders. How could I get them not to see us as a rival? It was no simple task. I met with each club president and outlined the social services we would provide. Would we hold special events and draw off their members? The solution was to find out when they regularly met and schedule our events at other times.

To seal the deal, we would make a monthly calendar to hand out that would include their events. They had never had such a publicity outlet.

When it came to deciding what type of activities would work, we conducted a survey. Many of these senior citizens had retired from the garment trade. Sewing came to them easily. Hence, we opted for needlecraft and, later on, quilting. Some had sung in their churches or temples, so we formed a senior center choir. And quite a few had rich life stories they wanted to turn into memoirs. Motivated by this, we started a creative writing journal.

Mental motivation is extra important as our years accumulate. I decided to launch a monthly "senior forum" and invite interesting speakers. We partnered with the local library branch who welcomed us into their community room. We formed an advisory council to help us select the most relevant topics.

Spanning the Generation Gap was a key goal I pursued.

One Valentine's Day we organized a panel of teenagers and senior citizens to discuss how dating patterns have changed over the years. We also found out that over half our older population had been foreign-born. The Statue of Liberty was about to mark its 150th birthday in New York Harbor. That proved ideal for matching writing majors from local colleges with those immigrant seniors. We wrote a successful grant that allowed a stipend for each interview done with a senior. The result: an assortment of real-life stories was published.

We called it The Ellis Island Digest.  Our congressman wrote the introduction.

We then learned that a trash dump near the local junior high was an eyesore to the Rochdale community. Nobody liked it but neither did anyone have a plan to get rid of it. I came to believe that when you eradicate something, you need an attractive substitute. Why not an intergenerational vegetable garden? Yes indeed. Once again I wrote a grant and worked out a budget. I learned about chicken-wire fencing and peat moss manure. I worked with coop management to extend underground pipes to bring in water to the garden-to-be. The grant went through, and we teamed up youth and seniors for each garden plot assigned.

When summer came, folks would crane their necks and admire the growing veggies. As autumn arrived, we celebrated by holding a community harvest picnic.

Intelligence is no barrier to getting disabled.  Two of our brighter ladies from the senior forum fell ill and became shut-ins at the same time.  We sent them meals-on-wheels but that did not quench their thirst for wanting mental activity.  This led to creating a Sunshine Line network. Simply put, we had our senior forumspeaker come back to my office for a pre-planned conference call with 6-8 homebounders.   They received that missing stimulation and socialized at the same time. Sunshine Line became a prototype, and we received letters from around the country.

In 1986 I led a workshop on this project at an annual NASW meeting in San Francisco.  The University of Maryland also sponsored a regional conference on aging and disability issues in Philadelphia, and requested me to give a presentation on Sunshine Line.

Later on I moved from NYC to Arlington, VA. and helped organize the Eldermentors Project.  The concept was to enroll retired folks to be role models for new immigrant kids at the middle school level.  They buddied off and shared stories of their past, tackled homework together, and develped a vision plan for a future college goal.  At the end of the 10-week session, we had an international farewell party, featuring food and music from each kid's country of origin.

Since moving to Oregon in 2000, I've worked mainly in counseling and home care.  In the latter, I've developed a handout of community resources to help guide the caregiver. I've helped do roleplay so more frightened patients could discuss their issues with their doctors.

Along the trail, I've used blackboards to help in counseling sessions by showing how decusions play out.  Illustrating each action as part of a flow chart brought out a clearer picture.

After thirty years in the field, my heart told me it was time to develop a formal theory on life's transitions.  I chose doing a hierarchy of social roles that we adopt to gain self-esteem.  As we age, some social roles are shed.  How do we fill that void?   Do we find a new activity or descend into defeat?  I've named that theory as Multiple Role Attrition Syndrome (MRAS). 

It governs our quality life between retiring and expiring.  And that's the tricky tightrope on which we all walk.

NOTE: Lee graduated from Hunter College during the 70's with an MSW in Group Work and Community Organization.  Now a consumer of aging services, at last, he welcomes your comments at tel:503-851-7825.

_____________________________________ Community Writer Barry Lee Coyne brings to our readers stories from his combined career of journalism and gerontology, and explains that these paths shaped his values. Lee Coyne once worked for The Civil Service Leader in NY State and covered the Legislature. He has also done features on mediation and arbitration, and believes in healthy skepticism. This writer-therapist often views the world as the masks of comedy and tragedy placed upon the scales of justice. For him, optimism inevitably wins. "Lyrical Lee" has traveled to 30 nations aboard and was once a press intern at the UN. His first published article was in The NY Daily News in '59, dealing with the need for integrity in public office.

He also launched the nation's first tele-conference on health education for shut-ins, created the Eldermentors project in VA to pair retirees with immigrant students needing role models, and was the main catalyst behind CCTV's "Public Public" panel show here in Salem. Lee received his BA in International Relations and an MSW in community organization. He currently serves as a member of Salem's Library Advisory Board. To send Lee an email, please write to this address:

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