Seniors find community and karaoke at South Sunset Senior Center
An elderly man with sparkling glasses and complementary sparkling trim on his shoes, hat and vest strode boldly up to the karaoke podium and grabbed the microphone. After some quick introductions, and amid light applause from the audience, he announced that this next song was dedicated to me.
Me? Yup, me. The electronic symphony kicked in behind him, and then this Chinese man in his 70s, whose name — Diamond — perfectly matched his outfit, belted out a stirring rendition of “Always On My Mind,” his eyes locked on mine as if I were the only person in the room.
This was not my usual Thursday morning, but it wasn’t done just because there was a reporter in the room. It’s routine at the South Sunset Senior Center, where 10:45 to 11:45 is set aside for karaoke and this type of heartfelt serenading is commonplace.
Diamond Wong, who is something of an unofficial master of ceremonies for the karaoke, was the first to sing to me, but he was followed by several others.
Tucked in the northeast corner of the South Sunset Playground is the Outer Sunset’s only facility catering to the elderly. Operated by the city’s Self-Help for the Elderly, a program that focuses on supporting and empowering city residents older than 60, the South Sunset Senior Center is an easy building to overlook. Without its fading red sign, you might even think it was just a big bathroom facility for the playground at 40th Avenue and Vicente Street.
Which is ironic, because the center only has one bathroom for the 70 to 80 seniors who use the facility on a given day. But the smiling faces that filled the center show they make the best of the situation.
I was met by Lewis Louie, the center’s coordinator, and Annie Yu, a program manager who oversees many Self-Help for the Elderly locations. Louie has been with the center 17 years, and knows everyone. He is the most jovial one-man greeting party that I’ve ever seen. As we chatted in the entryway, he’d regularly interrupt to grab the hand of an arriving woman and sashay her across the threshold.
The center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., and Louie is there pretty much every one of those days.
“I’m seldom sick,” he said with a smile. “And I don’t take much vacation, either. I really like working here.”
The center’s schedule revolves around the daily lunch, which is served from 11:30 until 12:30. Anyone from the area over the age of 60 is welcome to lunch, which is prepared at The Heritage retirement community in the Marina, and then delivered to the Outer Sunset to be served.
The crowd typically starts rolling in around 10 or 10:30 for the activities that precede lunch, such as tai chi, bingo and karaoke, and often linger afterward.
“It’s important for seniors to have a place to go during the day,” Yu explained. “Most of them cannot cook for themselves because they often live in basement apartments without a kitchen.”
“Or they might be too forgetful, and cooking could be dangerous,” Louie chimed in.
“But most of all, it’s really important for them to come and have a place to talk to each other so they don’t feel so lonely throughout the day,” he said.
That sentiment lies at the heart of what goes on behind the walls of the center. It’s a gathering place for people in our society who are often left to fend for themselves.
Self-Help for the Elderly was created in 1966 as a part of the War On Poverty, and became a nonprofit organization in the 1970s. Its first location was in Chinatown, and over the years the organization has expanded to include multiple locations in the city, as well as in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties.
In the Outer Sunset the organization serves a predominantly Chinese elderly population, and the center is nominally bilingual but mostly Chinese in practice.
During lunch, 87-year-old Henrietta Fown approached me. She had been coming since the facility first opened 20 years ago, and used to come every day with her husband, who passed away a few years ago. She still visits around four times a week — not necessarily to eat, but rather just to enjoy the company of her friends.
“My husband used to teach tai chi here, and he made the video that they show in the mornings,” she said with obvious pride.
Fown’s daughter-in-law drives her to the center from their home, which is more than a mile away. “But if she can’t drive, Lewis will often come and get me. He’s so good for this place,” Fown said.
Many of the visitors have to take a few bus lines to get to the center. Louie also drives meals to elderly who are too sick to get to the center, a task that can take more than 90 minutes even though he doesn’t leave the Outer Sunset.
“With all the stop signs in this neighborhood, I get terrible gas mileage when I’m delivering lunch!” he joked as he loaded the hot meals into his car.
In addition to offering a rotating menu of 35 different lunches, the center also hosts educational classes to help seniors in their lives at home, such as nutrition, consumer protection and cell-phone use.
The funding for the SHE is spread across three main revenue channels: The City provides about one-third of the operating expenses, private donations account for another third and the seniors themselves pitch in. Each lunch comes with a suggested price tag of $2, which most seniors seemed to take tremendous pride in contributing.
It’s no surprise that like most services that rely in City funding, SHE is dealing with a reduced budget. Seeking to make up the difference, the organization has ramped up its fund-raising efforts, which include a talent show at Old St. Mary’s Church Auditorium on July 30 and a Walk-A-Thon in October.
Despite the limitations of its budget and its facility, the South Sunset Senior Center is a little beacon of warmth and community in our foggy neighborhood. I went in there not knowing what to expect; I left the place with a smile pasted on my face.
“If we treat the seniors with love and respect, and if they leave here happier than they arrived, I feel like I’m doing my job, and this place is serving its purpose,” Louie said.
All photos: Mark Lukach / Ocean Beach Bulletin
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