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Lending Support to Seniors : Thousand Oaks: Fitzgerald House activities range from music and crafts to an Alzheimer’s day-care program.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ben Lipman, 86 years old and grinning broadly, leaned close to his wheelchair-bound buddy and let fly with his favorite joke.

“What does a dog do that a man steps into?” Lipman asked.

A dozen senior citizens looked at him quizzically.

“Pants!” the octogenarian announced in triumph. “A dog pants, and a man steps into pants! Get it? Pants!”

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A few groans, a few laughs. Another afternoon at Thousand Oaks’ Fitzgerald House, where dozens of senior citizens gather each day for jokes, music, crafts and a strong dose of love.

Founded more than 15 years ago, when the notion of sending senior citizens to day-care programs was considered crass and cruel, Fitzgerald House has developed into a vital support center for the Conejo Valley’s elderly residents.

The nonprofit group Senior Concerns keeps Fitzgerald House bustling with two daily programs: a structured social calendar for 30 elderly residents, and close supervision for 10 memory-impaired adults, including those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Senior Concerns also runs the Meals on Wheels program, which provides hot lunches and nutritional snacks to thousands of elderly Thousand Oaks residents. Other programs offer support to senior citizens living on their own, and to families responsible for elderly parents.

“The single word underlying that whole operation is love,” said Councilwoman Judy Lazar, who directed Senior Concerns for six years before entering politics.

Priced on a sliding scale that peaks at $36 a day for the Alzheimer’s program, Fitzgerald House is nearly always filled to capacity.

But still, staff members seized a recent opportunity to recruit more elderly participants.

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Using cameras, technicians and script-writers donated by GTE’s in-house film crew, Senior Concerns members shot three 14-minute videos about their programs. They hope to show the videos to local companies, to educate baby boomer employees about caring for their elderly parents.

Fitzgerald House staffers also hope the videos will help them recruit more volunteers--and more donors to support the day-care programs, which run entirely on grants and gifts.

GTE’s donations, and the resulting films, have been “a dream come true,” said Lynn Engelbert, director of the Fitzgerald House.

By teaching middle-aged adults about the options for elder care, Engelbert said, “we’re getting away from the negative stereotype about senior day care. People are beginning to realize that if they delegate the care-giving process . . . for at least a few hours a day, they can keep their (elderly) loved ones at home much longer.”

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Recognizing the need for such services, executives at biotechnology giant Amgen Inc. have agreed to show the Fitzgerald House video to the firm’s 2,300 employees working at research labs and offices in Newbury Park.

“We’re preparing for the aging of the parents of people in our work force,” spokeswoman Lynne Connell explained.

Often, the senior citizens themselves need a little educating as well.

When her mother-in-law moved in with her four years ago, Peg Skieresz heartily recommended the Fitzgerald House program. She figured her mother-in-law, then 79 years old and lonely, would enjoy the companionship and the various activities, from sing-alongs to dances to gardening.

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But, Skieresz said, her mother-in-law flat out rejected the idea: “She said, ‘I’m not going to some place where only old people are.’ ”

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A visit to Fitzgerald House, however, changed her mind. Now Helen Skieresz considers herself a regular--welcomed with smiles each day, even though she admits to cheating at cards.

“If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be coming,” she said. “At first, there were a lot of strangers here, but now everybody’s a friend.”

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Director Engelbert hears such testimony every day from the participants, the staff and the volunteers who contribute more than 650 hours a month, doing everything from scrubbing the floor to listening to nostalgic reminiscences.

“This really is a joyful place,” Engelbert said. “We laugh a lot, we share a lot--and at any age, that’s what we need.”


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