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Senior Center Looks For a Younger Crowd

By Kellie Hall, Special to the Independent

Lola  Gillebaard, left, follows the lead of fall prevention therapist Geeta Singh at the Susi Q class.

Lola Gillebaard, left, follows the lead of fall prevention therapist Geeta Singh at the Susi Q class.

Residents over 55 are the fastest growing demographic in Laguna Beach, and the volunteers and staff of the Susi Q senior center are trying to cater to them and bring in younger participants.

The median age of local residents reported on the 2010 U.S. Census was 49.4, six years older than the median age a decade earlier, demonstrating the town’s population trend. An increasingly aging population suggests that the political, social, and cultural concerns of seniors will greatly influence the future of Laguna Beach.

As the Laguna Beach Seniors organizations approaches its 40th anniversary as a senior center and celebrates the fifth anniversary of the Susi Q complex, managers now aim to entice younger seniors in the doors in order to revamp its image and develop a long-term plan for remaining relevant. This strategy was on full display at the Susi Q’s recent community open house on June 7. No one in the crowd confessed to visiting the center for the first time when asked by Mayor Elizabeth Pearson.

Appealing to a younger demographic is not simply important to the Susi Q for its own longevity, but for local politicians as well. “If you don’t cater to seniors, you won’t be re-elected,” cautioned Pearson, who is not seeking re-election in November, as she awarded an anniversary proclamation.

The building of a senior center was a hot-button issue and many residents were opposed to the Susi Q’s development, said Pearson. A small neighborhood of bungalows was razed to make way for the center.

Pearson had long been an advocate for seniors and for the construction of an updated center, said Chris Quilter, a former Susi Q president and the son of the Susi Q’s namesake, Elizabeth “Liz” Quilter, who wrote “The Diary of Susi Q” column first for the Coastline Pilot and then for the Laguna Beach Independent.

As politicians must appeal to a third of the local population over the age of 55, the Susi Q must also demonstrate its importance to the community in order to raise funds. Though the new center was built through independent fundraising and receives no city funding, the city has leased the grounds to the Susi Q for $1 a year for the next 99 years, said Quilter. The Susi Q is “seniors helping seniors,” though “95% of the time, cities pay for this,” according to current Susi Q president Tina Haines.

Several issues limit the Susi Q’s outreach efforts. Events are frequently held during the workweek, including a Friday, June 13, rock ‘n roll dance program that drew only a handful of seniors.

This daytime schedule is tailored to those seniors unable to drive at night, speculated Corona del Mar resident and frequent Susi Q visitor, Diane Baker. Those not yet retired might have difficulty attending, said Baker who is employed as a substitute teacher.

Some homebound seniors cannot reach the center, said Susi Q Executive Director Nadia Babayi. About 4,000 people have registered at the Susi Q, and another 75 to 100 seniors sign-up each quarter, she said.

Plans are in motion to make the Susi Q, “a senior center without walls,” in order to appeal to even more residents, said Babayi, potentially including satellite offices as well as case managers and volunteers to make home visits.

The center’s current programming includes daily activities which range from ukulele instruction to free mental health counseling to possibly the first GLBT senior group in the nation, noted Babayi and Quilter. The center also draws in seniors from surrounding communities, including first-time visitor and Laguna Woods resident Ann Beier, who took public transit to the open house.

And while the center continues to grow, managers who envision the center as a gathering spot for those under 55 clearly have a challenge in changing perceptions if the rock ‘n roll program’s poor turnout is an indicator. Perhaps an upcoming September fashion show will prove more popular.

Cross-generational programming could help the center’s efforts to integrate itself into the broader community without alienating its long-time clientele, suggested long-time patron Baker.

Even so, Baker, a loyal patron, applauded the center’s efforts to integrate itself into the broader community without alienating its long-time clientele. “Laguna’s changed, and it seems to be changing again,” said Baker.

 

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