Enumclaw seniors dance along with their new line dance instructor, Sharon Elston, who was just teaching them the Cupid Shuffle. Photo by Ray Miller-Still
                                Enumclaw seniors dance along with their new line dance instructor, Sharon Elston, who was just teaching them the Cupid Shuffle. Photo by Ray Miller-Still

Enumclaw seniors dance along with their new line dance instructor, Sharon Elston, who was just teaching them the Cupid Shuffle. Photo by Ray Miller-Still Enumclaw seniors dance along with their new line dance instructor, Sharon Elston, who was just teaching them the Cupid Shuffle. Photo by Ray Miller-Still

Recovering the mantle of ‘senior’

The Enumclaw Senior Center, with the help of a potential five-year grant from the county, hopes to change how people think about getting older.

Long before Cole Street restaurants prepare their sandwich boards, antique shops set out their wares, and cars jockey for parallel parking, the Enumclaw Senior Center is usually already bustling with activity.

From early-bird Pilates to afternoon line dancing and occasional day trips, the Senior Center offers a vast array of activities and services — and thanks to some King County grants, the center is hoping to offer even more to the ever-growing senior population.

On Sept. 20, Senior Center Director Jobyna Nickum hosted a breakfast for influential members of the Enumclaw community to let them know what’s been going on.

The biggest news is the center received a $94,500 grant from King County, revenue that was collected when voters approved a levy supporting veterans and seniors in 2017.

The Enumclaw City Council officially accepted the grant during their Sept. 24 meeting.

Most of the money will be for capital projects and infrastructure upgrades — for example, the center’s dishwasher is more than halfway to being able to join in on the Senior Center’s activities, and the office space needs to be remodeled to become compliant with the Americans with Disability Act.

Some money will be used to promote the county’s property tax exemption for seniors and those with disabilities.

And the rest of the grant, which Nickum seemed particularly excited for, will be spent on outreach and marketing, something which the Senior Center hasn’t been able to do “for a number of years,” she said.

There are roughly 2,800 seniors in the Enumclaw area, she said in a later interview, but the center doesn’t even serve a majority of them.

That’s why she and the center’s marketing and outreach coordinator Brenda Sexton want to “find ways we can reach those in our community who could benefit from the Senior Center’s programs and services,” Sexton said.

But the biggest problems Nickum and Sexton seem to be facing aren’t a lack of awareness of the senior center, or even really a lack of willingness to participate — it’s the negative attitudes and stereotypes about aging that people spend a lifetime developing and strengthening, and the correlating stigma that surrounds senior centers not just in Enumclaw, but around the nation.

“Ageism is the one discrimination we just allow,” Nickum said in an interview after the breakfast.

But she hopes with this new grant money, and the opportunity to receive a five-year grant in 2019 from the county to continue promoting positive aging programs for seniors, local mindsets will start to change.

“People spend a lifetime learning not to get older,” Nickum continued. “We change that here. Aging is honored here, as it should be.”

AN ANTI-AGING CULTURE

According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 10,000 people will turn 65 per day between 2011 and 2030, leading to approximately 81 million Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and making up around 18 percent of the U.S. population.

This means it’s essential for seniors to know how to age well now, Nickum told her audience.

But it’s not just about eating the right kind of foods and doing the right kind of exercise for an aging body, she continued — it’s just as important to have the right mindset about aging, which is hard in today’s society.

Many people aren’t conscious that “American society tells you that you don’t want to age,” Nickum said. “And that affects how you age in a positive way.”

Dina Newsom, program director with Prestige Senior Living — which has adult living facilities around Washington, including Enumclaw — agreed.

“We spend a lot of money on procedures and cosmetics and ways to act young, look young,” Newsom said, adding that even Prestige has to be careful about how it markets itself in an anti-aging culture — on their brochures, they picture seniors that are typically much younger than their average clients in order to attract new residents. “That appeals to them, more than putting an older person in the brochure,” Newsom said.

Skin products, cosmetic surgeries, even the greeting card industry create and reinforce stigmas about being old, Nickum said, but one of her biggest pet peeves, it seems, is when people use the phrase “senior moment,” in a negative fashion.

“We laugh, we chuckle, ‘Oh, I’m having a senior moment.’ ‘I went to the mall and I forgot where I parked my car.’ Senior moment. ‘I was late this morning because I couldn’t remember where I put my glasses.’ Senior moment… We only say it when something bad happens,” she said. “When people say that here, you know what I say? ‘Hey, do you say ‘senior moment’ when your kids’ daycare has to shut for a week, and because you’re retired, and you’re available, and you’re able to babysit your grandson for a week and help your daughter out and you really saved the day for your adult kids? Did you say, ‘Wow, that was such a great senior moment?

“There are great things that happen when we get older, because we’ve learned lessons. We’ve been through a lot. But we never get credit for that,” Nickum continued.

IT’S (MOSTLY) ALL IN YOUR HEAD

These negative stereotypes and attitudes toward aging don’t just affect how we think about getting older, Nickum said. It also affects our bodies.

“Studies have found that all the chronic conditions we associate with old age — heart disease, arthritis, stroke, diabetes, and dementia… all those chronic conditions will happen at some point to all of us in our large age-span, [but] are all up to 70 percent preventable by lifestyle changes we make in our 50s and our 60s,” she continued. “That means good diet, exercise, and positive thinking.”

A 2016 National Public Radio article focused on a Yale School of Public Health study about how people’s attitudes on aging affects their lives.

“This research found that older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging,” the abstract synopsis of the study reads.

In 2014, the New York Times wrote about an 1981 experiment where eight elderly men stayed for five days in a monastery converted to conjure up their youthful years.

“Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959,” to help the septuagenarian guests “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” the article reads.

And at the end of their stay, the men “were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller… Independent judges said they looked younger,” it continued.

The BBC recreated the small experiment in 2010, a broadcast called “The Young Ones,” with similar results.

“One [participant], who had rolled up in a wheelchair, walked out with a cane. Another, who couldn’t even put his socks on unassisted at the start, hosted the final evening’s dinner party, gliding around with purpose and vim. The others walked taller and indeed seemed to look younger,” the article reads.

Newsom hadn’t heard of these specific studies, but it certainly fit in with others she’s aware of and her knowledge of the baby boomer generation in general.

“The boomers don’t want to get old. They want to be young forever,” she said. “So they’re looking to seek that type of lifestyle.”

If that’s true, then it’s little wonder Jimmy Buffett’s Latitude Margaritavilles — an adult living facility described as “going back to summer camp at 55” by its chief executive — are so popular.

But all the cheeseburgers in paradise and boat drinks in the world are unlikely to help if you have no one to share them with.

Many studies show socialization is a key factor to aging well, from retaining high physical mobility to having better resistance against mental decline, according to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

“The argument can be made for the physical and mental benefits of joining activities as we age – absolutely. But now medical studies are proving that the social connections we make doing these activities are just as important. Perhaps more so,” Nickum said. “People are meant to be social. We are meant to live our lives together. Whether it’s line dancing, lunch or memory class – it’s being with others that is what it’s all about.”

A schedule of monthly events and meals can be found at the Senior Center or online at www.cityofenumclaw.net/177/Senior-Center. For more information, call 360-825-4741.

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