On their own turf, on their own terms

Times Staff Writer

At 90 years old, Effy Yeganeh chooses to live alone in her apartment in the Park La Brea area. Eve Friedman, 91, lives in the nearby Hayworth Terrace largely on her own. What the two women share is a fierce determination to stay in their Fairfax District neighborhood and be as independent as possible.

"This is where there are hundreds and hundreds of old Jewish people, in homes, in board-and-care," Friedman said. "You're among your own kind here.... This is where I belong."

As the nation's 65-and-older population soars, growing numbers of people are choosing to remain right where they are, in the homes and neighborhoods where they raised children, celebrated holidays and made memories.

Simply by staying put, people are creating what experts call "naturally occurring retirement communities," or NORCs: neighborhoods or apartment buildings where a large percentage of residents are seniors. Yeganeh and Friedman have been able to stay put with help from a state program that assists the them with adapting their housing to their age.

Now, a federal effort is underway to encourage the trend. Congress has awarded funding to 12 communities nationwide for services to help older people remain in their homes, its second round of assistance for such communities.

The project allows the federal government to test the benefits of aging in place, said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which recently received nearly $500,000, the only California organization to receive such a grant. But more important, he added, it will assist older people in need.

"They won't be institutionalized prematurely and they can enjoy quality of life in the community in which they're living," Fishel said. "It has practical implications in helping people live longer, be happier and more content."

The project is also expected to please fiscal watchdogs. Providing services in the home costs "a fraction of the cost of what a nursing home would cost," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a strong supporter of NORCs. Moreover, he said, it's a "more humane way for seniors to live out their years."

In 1986, New York City's Penn South housing cooperative became the first NORC in the nation with a supportive services program. New York now has 28 such programs, which are home to 36,000 people.

Across the country, NORCs are experiencing heightened attention as policymakers draft plans to meet the housing and social service needs of an older population that is expected to reach 70 million -- 20% of the population -- by 2030.

Graying is already evident in some Southern California communities. In one census tract in the San Gabriel Valley, home to 1,261 people, 43% of the population is 65 or older. One census tract in Mission Hills has 325 people, with 95% of them older than 65.

In some instances, the concentration of older residents reflects the existence of planned age-restricted retirement communities, such as the city of Laguna Woods (formerly Leisure World) in Orange County. Others have more organic origins, years in the making, such as the Fairfax District, which offers residents ready access to shopping, places of worship and public transportation.

During a long bout with sickness, Friedman lost her apartment and was released from the hospital to a nursing home. But the former socialite felt out of place there, among those using wheelchairs and walkers.

"She's an amazing woman," said Anita Harris, Friedman's social worker. She was capable of doing many things on her own, Harris said. "The question was, 'Where should she live?' "

Long before Friedman's illness, Harris had assisted her through a state effort known as Multipurpose Senior Services Program, which is run in the Fairfax area by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.

The state program, started in 1977 and known as MSSP, offers an example of what the new federally supported NORC program will do. The goal is to help older people remain in their homes by arranging for and monitoring their use of community services, such as home health care and transportation.

Harris visited Friedman in the hospital, and when she was ready to leave the nursing home, Harris was there again to help.

Friedman now lives in a place she knows well, a board-and-care that she remembers visiting when her mother was elderly. Back then the family-owned business was run by the father; now his sons operate it.

Friedman calls it home.

"I can survive here," she said, sitting on the bed of her private room. "I can tolerate this."

Many Americans share Friedman's desire to stay in their communities. A 2000 AARP study found that some 84% of people 45 and older stated that they would prefer to remain in their current residence as long as possible rather than move to a retirement home. At the heart of that preference is something deeper than attachment to home and a neighborhood.

"Older people want to be in a position where they are in control and they are making the decisions," said Elinor Ginzler, AARP's manager for independent living and long-term care. "That's what contributes to the quality of life, it's a person's sense of independence and empowerment: 'Am I in charge?' "

Park La Brea resident Yeganeh, who does not want to be a burden to her family, retains that control by living in her apartment. She does not want to sit idle. Keeping house, dusting, cooking meals for her family, "gives her that happiness that she's still doing and living on her own and she has her own identity," said her daughter, Fay Bazargani.

The emotional support the MSSP offers the family means as much to Bazargani as the help it provided with arranging for shower bars and an emergency call button for Yeganeh.

"They remember her ...," she said of the Jewish Family Service workers. "She's not totally alone and disregarded by society."

With the NORC funding provided by Congress, Jewish Family Service will provide services similar to the MSSP in parts of West Hollywood and an undetermined area in the Fairfax District. While the boundaries and definitions of NORCs vary nationwide, they can range from a large high-rise to a city block or even a census tract.

NORC social workers will develop a plan, like the assistance provided to Friedman, to help area seniors remain at home. Services could include connecting seniors to Meals on Wheels and providing home modifications such as shower bars or raised toilet seats. Social workers might arrange assistance with grocery shopping and transportation or even provide cordless phones for those with mobility problems.

"It really depends on the person, what their needs are and what they have," said Perri Sloane Goodman of Jewish Family Service. "Some have family members very involved, other people have nobody."

NORC services can assist residents who are healthier with wellness and exercise classes. Small measures such as adjusting the timing on pedestrian traffic signals to account for slow walkers or designing a bus route that considers the traveling patterns of older people, can also make a big difference in a person's ability to age in place.

With looming budget cuts threatening state programs, the new NORC might prove even more valuable in the Fairfax District.

"For most people it's just a huge quality-of-life issue," Goodman said. "The longer we can keep people at home, the happier they'll be."

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