Jane Baker didn’t know what to expect when she agreed to survey the needs of South Side seniors for her master’s thesis.
The 34-year-old college graduate said she viewed old age as a little scary and went into the job with some apprehension.
What she discovered allayed her fears.
She encountered a group of active elders who want to get in touch with one another and who want to do more to improve the lives of others.
Baker’s research is being used by the Southside Senior Activities Center to improve existing programs and build a case for the construction of a permanent new home.
“It was real life work, not just for the academics, but for something that makes a difference,” said Baker, who is getting her master’s degree in communications from Eastern Washington University.
“I learned a lot about my own fear of growing old. Maybe it isn’t something to be afraid of,” she said.
“I had some perceptions of older people that were wrong.”
She recently was hired as development director for the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery on the South Side.
For her thesis, Baker sent out a survey and compiled the results from 508 members of the senior center.
She organized three focus sessions with younger and older nonmembers to find out what they would like to see in an expanded senior center.
Then she put together a town hall meeting of the current membership and compiled comments from the group of 104 who showed up.
The most encouraging finding was a request by seniors for a resource center to help them become involved in volunteer services, she said.
“They are very interested in giving back to the community,” Baker said.
Seniors said they want to help children, the poor, other seniors, animals and the environment.
“I think they feel they’ve had a good life. They feel lucky they made it this far,” Baker said.
“I think that’s why they want to return some of their fortune to the homeless and less fortunate.”
The Care Bears program, in which senior center members visit the homes of other seniors who have recently lost their spouses, was cited as important volunteer work.
Seniors repeatedly said they need opportunities for companionship, whether through dinners and dances or one-day tours around the region.
“There’s nothing more depressing than opening a can of soup and sitting at home watching TV,” Baker said. “I think they really need to not be alone.”
Baker said the programs of the existing center get good marks from seniors, but they want more of them.
The current rental facility in the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center gets bad marks.
It is noisy. Parking is difficult. There are no areas to socialize.
Lunches and dinners aren’t as fun or as frequent as they could be because there is no commercial kitchen or dance area. Classroom space is limited.
Of members surveyed, 80 percent still drive their own cars, and 40 percent make incomes in excess of $25,000.
The income level is important because the 1,200 senior center members could be a source of donations for a new $1.8 million center.
Senior center directors are eyeing a city-owned site near the water reservoirs on Ray Street.
Two-thirds of the members surveyed are over age 70. Center officials want to target younger seniors from ages 55 to 70, she said.
Preventive health advice and health screenings are being encouraged by those surveyed. One recommendation is to add new classes and to expand the number of local outings.
“There are people up there learning foreign languages for the first time at age 69,” Baker said.
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