A sanctuary at twilight

This little piece takes us, not just to a place, but into the minds and hearts of those, who are in their twilight years, in a society that glorified youth.

At the Culver City Community Center for Seniors, the tangible atmosphere was of bustle and contentment.

The big room was filled with light from the tall windows that enabled you to see the old people clearly. There were about 70 of them.

Groups of men were playing cards, while some were just sitting  and looking.

A group of women chatted at a table; there were others moving toward the area where food was being served.

The social director of the center took me around. Old faces were raised in interest, a number nodded and smiled.

I confess that I did not expect to find happiness here.  I came to this place, recoiling in apprehension from the smell of age, the apparition of infirmity, apathy and resignation.

Most of us, I think, are weighed down with a sense of guilt for the old. They are not as cherished as our parents were. We seem to have little room for them in our hearts, or our lives.

Mistakenly, we have come to believe that they need us, more than we need them. Then comes the revelation  — old people do find their place together, a  place where they belong.

The old people, who came to the center, cannot be so different from the tens of thousands who live in this city.

Many of them, especially the men, (we were told) live in furnished rooms, alone and on old-age relief.

After working all their lives, they have nothing to do.  Degeneration of spirit and tissue takes its relentless course, as they either sit hours out in chronic depression or haunt clinics and hospitals, not  so much to ask for attention to cure their ailments,  but just to be able to speak to somebody.

At these community centers for the aged, there are many old people who still live with their relatives in comparative security.

But reading through their histories, one discovers that there is hardly anyone of them who does not feel burdened with feelings of being unwanted and of being useless and dependent.

Thinking about it, it seems that they are all well-aware of the tension that these feelings produce — younger people keep them, out of pity or out of a sense of duty.

Could this be the reason why they become difficult to others? Why they strain for a sense of importance and worth, which they feel they have earned yet have been denied?  Why some just give up and wait to die?

These centers provided leisure time activities for the older people.

In Culver City, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Silver Lake they have 200-300 members.

About 150 come in a day; some everyday (at the St. Vincent  Hospital Senior Center) while others, a few times a week.

They range from ages 60-94; most are in their 70s, some are foreign-born. Beverly Hills is predominantly Jewish.

Most of these older people came to this center, not immediately after retirement but after many years of living alone.

The centers are open everyday from 9-5. To most men, this time span can substitute for a business day.

Even those who have families cherish this bit of freedom to be themselves, as they were.

For the women, it is a place for family, gossip and companionship. For both men and women, it is where they find the audience they crave.

When the elderly first come to the center, they are often timid, withdrawn and insecure.

Then, gradually, through card games, music classes, dramatics or committees (there are lots of them), they begin to emerge, make contact, stir old skills and dream. (“When I Grow Too Old To Dream” by Sigmund Romberg says it best. )

Those who were tense, rigid and extremely reserved (even aloof) at the beginning would begin to open up during poetry reading and song-and-dance sessions — they would applaud each other as well.

However, the director said even though there are many happy responses, one still cannot assume that sweetness and lightness are the orders of the day.

Competitiveness, jealousy, hurt feelings, inferiority complex — these can and do explode periodically.

There’s the “showoff,” who brags about her finishing school education in Switzerland;  there’s one gets annoyed because the art instructor spends more time with another.

Habitual card players are looked down upon because they don’t do anything else.

Of course, some are more comic than tragic. For example, a quarrel between two newly-weds in their 80s (they met at the center).

The coloratura, who is persistent in singing arias, got the ire of the pianist.

The pianist throws the fruits and cookies and everyone makes a mad scramble for them.

At the center, the old do not wait for death, but for the coming of a new day.

***

E-mail Mylah at moonlightingmdl@aol.com

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