Not Your Grandma’s Senior Center

Like many senior centers around the country, the downtown San Diego building at 9th and Broadway was dingy, dark, and offered limited social activities like bingo or the occasional dance. Older adults who weren’t depressed before they arrived at the center often left that way.

But when two local philanthropists met with the center’s director as part of a survey of 10 local senior centers – the trio quickly found they shared the same daring vision: a glittering, high-tech wellness center that would pioneer coordinated health and social services for the impoverished elderly.

Two years ago, the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center fulfilled that vision, opening an environmentally-designed building and a program that blankets clients with support ranging from meals to health classes, housing assistance, nursing advice, transportation, social services, mental health support, and a cyber café.

“This is not your grandma’s senior center,” says Paul Downey, president and CEO of Senior Community Centers, a phrase echoed by staff members heralding a new and innovative approach to elder care.

The gleaming new building, a mile from its original site, today assists more than 3,000 clients annually – 86% of them below the poverty level. Attendance doubled in its second year.

New clients to the center are welcomed into the busy and spacious ground floor by a receptionist who assesses their needs and directs them to one or more services, including food, nursing, or social work.

To the left is The Gathering Place, a room dedicated to health classes ranging from exercise to cooking and diabetes prevention. (Mary West herself teaches a monthly cooking class.)

To the right is the common area, where visitors can read, relax, or watch television in a cavernous room infused with natural light.

The Cyber Café offers computer workstations for classes and tutoring. A game room features board games like checkers and backgammon.

Together, the wraparound services – part of either the center’s Lifelong Learning Institute or the Center for Healthy Aging – focus on keeping older adults out of expensive emergency rooms or urgent care centers.

Downey summarizes the wellness center’s mission: “To provide real-time health interventions that will keep people healthy before something cataclysmic occurs.”

This philosophy mirrors a growing sentiment in the world of health: proper medical care is the hub of a much larger wheel that includes housing, nutrition, exercise, community interaction, and sense of belonging.

“We know that if we keep them healthy, we’ll keep them independent. Nobody aspires to be in a skilled nursing facility,” says Downey. “Everybody wins. There are no losers in this scenario.”

Robert Steenson, 72, was a big winner after getting sick while living out of his car.

“One day I got up and had blood in my urine,” he recalls.

Steenson had cancer. To receive surgery, though, he needed a place to live. The West Wellness Center staff not only found him an apartment, but now provides transportation assistance for appointments, helps him manage his diabetes, assists with food preparation, and makes sure he takes his medications.

“Anything they can help you with they’re more than happy to do,” says Steenson.

Key to the center’s focus on wellness is its most high-tech offering. Placed near a window at the edge of the noisy community room, a health kiosk from Solo Health provides patients with instant assessments for vision, blood pressure, weight, body mass index (BMI), and overall health risk.

The kiosk will play a vital role in the center’s future, central to a its “Passport to Health” program, which will require patients to meet with a new Geriatric Care Coordinator and use the kiosk – both twice a month – according to Mary Mazyck, vice president of programs and services,

While 75% of visitors to the Wellness Center come only for meals, the remainder use its wide range of social services.

Mazyck says some older adults come to the wellness center right after being discharged from the hospital.

“There’s a place for them to go and ask questions,” says Mazyck, adding that the top requests are for housing and medical care, “This is where people have fallen through the cracks.”

Although it is not a medical clinic, the center has a staff nurse who sees patients in the morning then travels to the network’s two multi-unit housing facilities.

Staff social workers ensure clients receive treatment for geriatric depression, or qualify for Medi-Cal. Some even receive food for their pets when they can’t afford it.

“We’ve always known that people feel better and live longer because they come here,” says Mazyck.

Dennis Dooley, 71, participates in several wellness activities at the center. He exercises five days a week, uses the Cyber Café, attends ice cream socials, and attends classes to manage his diabetes.

Dooley, who lives by himself, says without the center life would be much harder.

“I’d have to go out and find my happiness and wellbeing in the city of San Diego, possibly by going to 12-step meetings,” he says. “The senior center arranges a lot of my entertainment.”

For Downey, the wellness center refutes ideas that aging adults and technology don’t mix. In particular, he cites the center’s Cyber Café.

“It blows apart the stereotypes that seniors can’t use technology,” says Downey. “That’s a lot of crap. They need to be shown. They need to be taught.”

The building itself received a coveted LEED gold award for energy savings and sustainable design. One unique feature is Solatube lighting, which uses a series of mirrors to pipe natural daylight into rooms, entirely replacing bulbs.

Senior Community Centers operates the 10 senior centers as well as two apartment complexes that offer 350 units of housing. Together, the vast system provided 450,000 meals last fiscal year – about 40% of them served at the West Wellness Center. (The organization expects to serve 100,000 more meals this year.)

The wellness center serves a wide ethnic mix: about half are white; one-quarter are Asian; over 20% are Latino; and more than 10% are African-American. Besides English, the multi-ethnic staff speaks Spanish, Mandarin, and Tagalog.

Critical to the West Wellness Center’s success are the alliances formed with a wide variety of players in the San Diego health system.

The region’s powerful Sharp Community Medical Group donates a full-time psychiatric nurse who assesses whether clients can safely live on their own – saving the center $100,00 annually.

An Elder Law and Advocacy attorney visits twice monthly to offer legal advice.

And both local university systems – the University of California San Diego and San Diego State University – also provide crucial assistance. UCSD sponsors the “Bridge to Recovery” program for mental health and substance abuse, while SDSU sends student nurse practitioners to teach various health classes.

Gary and Mary West are two of San Diego’s leading philanthropists, who in 2009 also founded the West Wireless Health Institute, a research organization devoted to digital health solutions.

“These seniors are ordinary folks who haven’t caught many breaks in life and are now teetering on the edge of survival,” writes Gary West in an email. (The Wests do not give interviews.) “Our philanthropic investment helps the center provide programmatic outcomes that literally change and save lives. From our perspective, there is nothing better than that.”

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