I ate lunch at a Senior Center today and wondered if I’d find myself spending much time at a place like this in the future and, if so, if I would enjoy being there. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable today, but 10 years from now who can say. I decided to be a social anthropologist and learn what I could from observing the seniors in this setting created specially for them.
For $3 I received a small piece of halibut, a big scoop of scalloped potatoes, well-boiled and soggy beans and pea pods, and canned fruit. (Although not completely nutritious, a hot meal for those who might not otherwise get it.) About 20 people were eating, most in their seventies and eighties. Each table accommodated about six people and most were full. Since I could hear lots of chatter from the tables, I assumed the people sitting at them were regulars and had probably chosen to sit with people they knew. (An opportunity to keep up social connections while enjoying a meal together.)
I stayed for several hours after lunch to play mahjong. My friend and mahjong teacher Gail, who is not yet a senior, takes tap dancing at this center; while there she met Danielle (definitely a senior), who was born in Shanghai, immigrated to Taiwan and eventually to the U.S., who teaches oil painting and also plays mahjong. As soon as the three of us sat down in one room and started to organize our tiles, we had to move to a new space for the sake of the Spanish class that was about to begin in that one. (Language learning is thought to be one possible way to slow down the onset of dementia). In the room where we settled, which was next to the room where several men were playing pool, one man was playing solitaire and a group of four women were playing pinochle. We were the only ones talking, but that was probably because my companions — skilled mahjong players — had to correct my mistakes and laugh at them. While we were playing, one woman, who had just signed up to take oil painting, stopped in to meet Danielle and ask her what materials she needed to bring to class. Danielle then explained that she should shop for supplies at a particular store, buying only one thing at a time, because after each purchase she would receive a receipt offering her a discount on the next one. (Showing support and sensitivity by sharing money-saving tips.) “I guess we can do this because we have a lot of time on our hands,” the woman said and then left to go shopping. (I couldn’t interpret this comment, that is, whether she was being sarcastic or just realistic.)
If you look at aging in phases, this senior center probably represents phase 2. In the first years of retirement you buzz around trying to squeeze in all the activities you think you’ve missed out on while you were working: travel, volunteering, entertainment, lunches and dinners with friends, reading, and investing more time in an avocation. In phase 2 your circle shrinks, your world gets smaller. Maybe some of your friends are gone, you are less excited about driving, and cooking every day becomes tiresome. You feel like you should save money, because you’re not sure you’ll have enough later when you really need it. You find one place that feels like home and that’s where you spend your time. I’m not going to get into phase 3, because I’ve depressed myself enough talking about phase 2. I think I’ll stay away from social commentary and from senior centers for a few more years. And I’ll be careful not to overcook the vegetables.