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Growing old in Richmond: senior services help only some

on December 11, 2015

Trudy Chastain and Aubrey Ceaser are best friends. They sit in a dining room at the Richmond Annex Senior Center on Huntington Avenue, paying little heed to the 50 or so others gathered for lunch. They don’t stop talking.

Chastain’s husband, Charles, watches them as he eats, chiming in briefly once in a while. Most of the time, the two women seem to be in a world all their own.

It’s a world full of other people in their 60s, 70s or beyond. In Richmond, people 65 or older make up 10.2 percent of the population, according to the city’s Planning and Building Services Department, and the figure rises to 14.2 percent for all of Contra Costa County. In California as a whole, 12.9 percent of the population is at least 65.

Senior citizens aged 80 or older are the fastest growing population segment in Contra Costa County. The aging trend raises new concerns about the adequacy of local resources to serve seniors—and the vital role of social opportunities.

For Ceaser and Chastain, the Richmond Annex Senior Center was a lifesaver.

“If not or this center, we wouldn’t have met,” Ceaser said.

Not all seniors in Richmond have managed to find a way to overcome the isolation that can accompany old age. While Chastain and Ceaser take advantage of resources like the senior center, others are unaware of these services, or have no way to reach them.

Growing old in Richmond can be a challenge.

Rosa Arriaga, a 72-year-old undocumented resident, lives across town from the Richmond Annex Senior Center. She leases a backyard room with the help of her nephew. Arriaga, who has lived in Richmond 24 years, had never heard of the senior center before a phone interview in mid-November. When she does leave her room, it is for a doctor’s appointment or to meet with social service agents.

“At my age, it is very difficult to leave (the house),” Arriaga said in Spanish. “I can’t even get a job at my age.”

The Richmond Annex center, located at 5801 Huntington Avenue, is one of only two city-funded places of its kind serving senior citizens in Richmond. Richmond’s other senior center, on MacDonald Avenue by City Hall, has been closed for remodeling since May 15. Initially expected to reopen in August, it now is set to open by the end of January.

Behind cardboard boxes and furniture, Peter DeFabio nails a frame to a wall in the Richmond Senior Center’s poolroom. The frame holds a photo of Jeanette Lee, a professional pool player who visited the center years ago.

“She came to visit the seniors for an hour and stayed for three,” said DeFabio, recreation program director for the center. He plans events and special occasions for the seniors, like the one that featured Lee. 

Once both centers are open, they are expected to serve about 270 people aged 60 and older, DeFabio said. For now, the number is a bit lower, with some seniors meeting downtown temporarily in the Richmond Memorial Auditorium, next door to the center being renovated. When the auditorium isn’t available, they are directed to another city-run recreation center, which isn’t geared to seniors, half a mile away.

“We’re trying to avoid going to the recreation center because the seniors get confused. They ask, ‘where are we today?’” DeFabio said.

The center will now have a new kitchen. The former kitchen has been transformed into a pantry. (Photo by Angelica Casas)

The center will now have a new kitchen. The former kitchen has been transformed into a pantry. (Photo by Angelica Casas)

No one debates the need for renovations at the downtown facility. The wooden floor had not been refinished in 20 years and the bathrooms had not been updated in almost 25. New cabinets were installed in a snack bar and the kitchen was moved and completely revamped. The former kitchen is now a pantry.

According to the Richmond’s 2015-2016 budget, the city allocated a $325,000 grant to the remodeling of the center. Despite the investment, the center serves a little less than 2 percent of the city’s senior citizens.

There are a variety of services (see interactive map) offered for senior citizens outside of the two centers, but some limit the services they provide this older age group and focus on helping general groups of the disabled, homeless or low-income populations.

That’s why, DeFabio said, staff is considering introducing senior recreational activities to community centers around the city. This, though, may have to wait until the center remodeling is complete.

“We’re thinking maybe the Nevin Community Center and Booker T. Anderson within six months,” he said.

Alane Arnold, 60, the Annex center’s youngest senior citizen, said she is learning that it’s better to grow old when help is around.

“We’re all going to get there,” Arnold said. “It’s about sharing and helping one another.”

Transportation is key, by all accounts.

“Seniors and disabled persons face mobility challenges due to the distance from their home to the nearest public transportation or multiple transfers to their final destination,” said Misha Kaur, coordinator of Richmond Paratransit. 

Richmond Paratransit, known as R-Transit, serves approximately 4,300 registered clients, most of them seniors, according to Kaur. Seniors pay $4 for a one-way trip scheduled up to 10 days in advance and $5 for same-day trips.

“Some clients are unable to sit or stand for long periods of time in order to wait for public transportation,” she added.

Although convenient, some seniors cannot afford the low-cost R-Transit services, or even the small cost of activities offered at the senior centers.

According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, California leads the country with the highest percentage of senior citizens living in poverty. Twenty percent of the state’s senior population lives below the poverty threshold, considering the state’s higher cost of housing and health care. That means they are living on an annual fixed income of less than $16,000. 

Single seniors, as opposed to those who are married, have an even greater chance of living in poverty, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

This is reflected in the city’s homeless population.

Many of those who benefit from homeless services in Richmond at places like the Bay Area Rescue Mission and the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, which offer free shelter and food, are senior citizens.

DeFabio said homeless seniors rarely attend the centers, which charge anywhere from $1 to $3 per daily activity and $2 for lunch.

“The center stresses (seniors) to be part of an activity,” DeFabio said.

Money is tight. That affects everyone, seniors included, looking for increases in city spending, according to Terrance Cheung, chief of staff for Richmond Mayor Tom Butt.

“Now is probably not the time—not just for seniors, but for (all departments),” Cheung said. “If there is funding, Mayor Butt would be open to doing that.”

Richmond’s Commission on Aging organizes events and field trips for seniors, including the popular Annual Winter Ball, which attracts visitors from all across the Bay Area.

City Councilmember Nathaniel Bates noted that the commission relies on fundraisers.

“They have also participated in senior programs associated with informing seniors regarding health education and social services programs available to the seniors and general public,” Bates said.

But events are not held regularly. As for new developments specifically for seniors, the city will have to wait.

“We want to make sure we have the funds to do it,” Cheung said, citing the city’s recent struggles to maintain its credit rating.

In the meantime, with the funds already granted by the city, DeFabio will continue preparing for the Richmond Senior Center’s reopening.

“I think it’s exciting,” DeFabio said. “When they come back, they’ll see something different.”

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