By Ralph Beren, Ed.D.
Throughout our lives, we identify ourselves in many different ways. Some are identities that we create through our personal development, such as via professional expertise, parenthood, and artistic interests. Others, like gender, sexual orientation and age, are fundamental in nature and less likely to change over the years.
Throughout my life, I’ve identified myself as many things—an educator, a father and a gay man, to name a few. But when it came to aging, and identifying myself as a “senior citizen,” I was having trouble seeing how I fit into that mold. However, when I stopped for a minute and picked my head up, I noticed that, not only was I growing older, but also that my social network was diminishing. I was retired from my job as an educator, my children had moved away from San Francisco, and I felt like there was a significant hole in my life.
It was around that time that a friend introduced me to San Francisco Village, a nonprofit organization empowering older adults to continue to live active lives in their homes and neighborhoods. My friend asked me several times to check it out and I balked, at first. Eventually, I went to a meeting and looked around the room. All I saw were old people. “What is this?” I asked. “These people are too old for me!” Despite the fact that they were discussing topics that interested me and activities that seemed fun and engaging, I was determined it wasn’t for me.
At the time, I identified myself as someone who is active and engaged, not old and frail. I had my blinders on and couldn’t see that everything I was looking for—community, connection, engagement, and an ability to live my passions with like-minded people—was right in front of me. I was afraid that being a member of such an organization would project an identity of someone who was not in control of his own life.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
After a few months, and some scary looks in the mirror, I figured out that I may actually be one of “those people,” and that the Village might fill my need for being with others who share similar passions. I began to attend meetings and activities, quickly making a number of connections with people who enjoy similar activities, such as movies, yoga, and comedy.
I felt I wasn’t at a point in my life where I needed the services offered as part of Village membership—including rides to the doctor’s office or grocery store, transition to home support after an operation, etc. Instead, I gravitated toward the community building activities, and found myself more socially enriched than I had been in years. Eventually, I threw myself into the Village, and joined those groups that interested me: a play-reading group, a book group, and I even started a group around my passion for movies.
Three years into my membership, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and needed to receive radiation treatments for 45 days. The services that I believed I wouldn’t need until years later all of a sudden became a necessity. While this revelation was both shocking and frightening, I knew I had somewhere to turn to ask for help.
San Francisco Village immediately responded to my request for help. Volunteers and members drove me to and from my treatments, and even waited for me during the procedures. I received check-in calls from other members and offers for people to come by and hang out during the more difficult days. When I joined the Village, I didn’t think I would need the care services they provide. However, when crisis occurred, I was lucky to have a trusted ally in SF Village helping me navigate the scary and complicated waters of cancer treatment. While I joined the Village for the social aspects of membership, it was the services that reinforced my belief in the Village model and the community they’ve created here in San Francisco.
Once recovered, I began to re-examine my identity, as well as how I identified with aging in general. No longer did I view my later years as a proverbial hammer waiting to drop. Thanks to the Village, I now see the years ahead of me as an invitation to participate in life and my community.
San Francisco Village is a citywide network that empowers older adults to continue to live active and full lives in their own homes and neighborhoods. The Village enables older adults to stay in charge of their lives as they manage the transitions of getting older by proactively offering expert guidance, support, services and community for a monthly fee. San Francisco Village, located at 3575 Geary Blvd., respects the rich diversity of San Francisco and embraces members from all walks of life. For more information, please visit www.sfvillage.org/ or phone 415-387-1375415-387-1375.
Ralph Beren, Ed.D., is a retired teacher and consultant in organizational behavior. He is the proud father and grandfather of three children and two grandchildren. His hobbies are writing, music, reading, working out and yoga. Ralph turned 80 this March.
•Institute on Aging: www.ioaging.org/
•National Resource Center on LGBT Aging: www.lgbtagingcenter.org/
•Memory Clinic, Kaiser Permanente Clara Medical Center: mydoctor.kaiserpermanente.org/ncal/facilities/region/santaclara/area_master/departments/memoryclinic/index.jsp
Alzheimer’s Association Programs and Services:
•24/7 Helpline: 1(800) 272-3900
•Online Community: www.alzheimersblog.org/lgbt-forum