Column: Plenty of clubs would reject me, but for the senior center, my credentials are perfect

Pasadena Senior Center
The Tap Chicks enjoy practicing their moves at the Pasadena Senior Center.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Rebecca McEnany waited with three other women for the next session to begin.

“What’s this class?” I asked.

“Tai chi,” she said, asking if I was going to join in.

“No,” I said. “I’m not a member. But I’m thinking of joining.”


There, I said it. I was thinking of joining a senior center. But I was also thinking of not joining a senior center.

Pasadena Senior Center
Mark Akita, 59, of Eagle Rock plays the piano at the Pasadena Senior Center as his friend Linda E., 36, of Glendale sings.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a big step.

“I didn’t think I was there yet, either,” said McEnany, who signed up in July, joining 2,000 other members of the Pasadena Senior Center. “But I came, and I love it. You should just do it.”

Should I?

There are plenty of clubs that wouldn’t have me, but for this one, I’ve got the credentials.

Two knee replacements. A pacemaker. A Medicare card in my wallet.

And I’m not suggesting seniors are cranky, but it’s something I can be good at. Just the other day I was complaining about how restaurant employees say “perfect” no matter what you tell them. You could say you just vomited your appetizer into your shoe and they’d say “perfect.”

Pasadena Senior Center
Dorothy R. Brown, 81, of Altadena volunteers at the coffee stand at the Pasadena Senior Center. Brown has been a member of the center for 10-plus years.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

I don’t live all that far from the center, where a membership is just $45, classes range from meditation to tap dancing to French and painting, and for an additional $90, you get access to a full-range fitness center for a year.

Did I just write that? Look at me, talking about good bargains, like my parents always did. My father used to say that my mother would drive 40 miles to fill up at a station where gas was 2 cents a gallon cheaper.

Maybe I can find a half-price coupon somewhere for the gym access.

Speaking of, I had visited the fitness center 10 years ago while working on a column. At the time, a 72-year-old lad named Jerry Brown was running for governor of California, and a poll found that 37% of voters said they were less likely to support anyone past 70. I wanted to see what the seniors thought about that.

“We’re not age-conscious around here,” a woman named Virginia said as she lofted a 12-pound dumbbell over her head like it was a doughnut.

A guy named Joel told me:

“There’s nothing wrong with 70. I’ll give you 30 push-ups right now.”

I like that fighting spirit, even though I’m not sure I could get through 10 push-ups without slipping a disc.

Pasadena Senior Center
Brajandra Singh, 71, of Altadena works out at the Pasadena Senior Center. Singh is a certified fitness trainer for seniors.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Getting old, by the way, is a big story. The population is aging faster than those bananas on your counter. Have you heard about what’s been referred to as the silver tsunami?

“The massive baby boomer generation has already begun aging into retirement, and will begin passing away in large numbers in coming decades — releasing a flood of currently owner-occupied homes that could hit the market,” said a report from Zillow.

Thanks, Zillow. Millions will soon die, happy house hunting!

USC demographer Dowell Myers has been pointing out for years that a growing number of seniors are becoming more dependent on a shrinking number of young folks.

“My indicator of rising senior burden is not looking good,” Myers told me this week by email. “We really need to invest far more in young people so that they can sustain the growing senior burden. Generations are connected.”

I’ve got to admit I’m not loving the term “senior burden.” Do I really want to join a club full of other burdensome people?

“With the name Pasadena Senior Center, people think they age 10 years just walking in the door,” said Charmaine Nelson, the marketing director. But then they join the book or film club, make a new friend, and keep coming back.

On Thursday morning, several people attended a session called “Fun Places to Go on the Metro.” In the nearby lounge, a silver-haired gent tickled a jazz tune out of the piano while a man in a USC Trojans jersey swayed to the music.

Pasadena Senior Center
A senior enters the Pasadena Senior Center.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“Aging is something our society doesn’t support, and youth is glamorized,” said Akila Gibbs, the executive director. “But I think it’s much better to embrace it. Aging is the gift you get for living.”

Unfortunately, it’s not a gift that can be returned.

Gibbs said she gets calls from people who say one parent died and the other is lonely but feels too young to join a senior center.

“I tell them to come in and volunteer, and then they like it,” said Gibbs.

And then they join.

At the Pasadena Senior Center, you can join young. The age range is 50 to 102, and the income range is just as vast. Gibbs said that after the sub-prime loan crash, a lot of seniors began sleeping in the park next door.

“We had two who were kind of camping outside our place and we were able to get them housing, and now they’re volunteers,” she said. “We have people come on a daily basis who we know are hungry, and we have a food pantry. The first Friday of each month, 400 people come and line up.”

Sandy Greenstein told me she always thought the senior center was such a community asset, she began making annual donations to the nonprofit when she was in her 40s. Later, as a senior, she joined the board of directors for two reasons:

Nancy Sharrett, 78, of Los Angeles, a member of the Tap Chicks, enjoys practicing at the Pasadena Senior Center.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

To be of greater service to fellow seniors, and to trick her husband Albert into joining.

“He said he wasn’t going to any senior center,” said Greenstein. But he began accompanying her to meetings and events, and when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he made good use of the fitness center in his final years, and also the counseling services on healthcare options.

Most of the seniors I know are engaged in the world. They vote, they have histories and perspective and stories to tell. My semi-retirement plan, down the road, is to write a weekly column called Golden State.

Get it?

Maybe I should join the senior center just to get more material.

I met a member named Dorothy Brown, who sometimes runs the 50-cents-a-cup coffee bar, and she told me her family moved to California from Mississippi in 1960. I asked if employment opportunities drew her west.

“Do you really want to know?” she asked.

Yes, I said.

“My husband was a truck driver,” she said, “and one afternoon he was late with a load of V.A. laundry, and a Caucasian man looked at him and said, ‘Let me tell you something. I will try to make sure you never earn another paycheck in Mississippi.’ ”

They packed up immediately and moved to Los Angeles, where Brown worked as a housekeeper so she could tailor her schedule to be available to her three kids before and after school. She and her husband took advantage of a “rent to buy” program and bought a house, she said. One of her daughters, Alice, was a track-and-field Olympian who won two gold medals and a silver.

Brown told me she joined the senior center 10 years ago to be around people she could talk to. While we were chatting, three people came over to wish her a happy new year.

I’m joining the senior center because it seems like a good way to start the year. Not because I’m getting old, but because I still feel pretty young.

By Easter, I intend to be able to say, to anyone who asks, I’ll give you 30 push-ups right now.