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Web conference takes on ’silver tsunami’


By Yasmin Anwar

BERKELEY – As America scrambles to meet the retirement needs of 78 million aging Baby Boomers, the University of California, Berkeley, is cyber-surfing ahead of the so-called “silver tsunami” by launching its first-ever online conference to help create aging-friendly communities.

Next Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 10 a.m. (PST), more than 1,000 people around the globe will log on to UC Berkeley’s virtual “Creating Aging-Friendly Communities” conference. To cover myriad aging-related dilemmas, including senior living arrangements, transportation, health care and Social Security, the free conference will run for three consecutive Wednesdays through March 5.

Andrew Scharlach, a UC Berkeley professor and associate dean of social welfare who organized the conference, said this country “needs to focus on creating communities that accommodate our needs as we grow older, communities where the wisdom of years is valued and applied. America has created Peter Pan environments for people who never grow old, particularly in the suburbs where we’re dependant on automobiles and there are long distances to navigate.”

Originally limited to 300 participants, conference membership has more than tripled due to overwhelming response. Participants span 14 countries and include policy makers, urban planners and denizens of rural retirement communities. Around the nation, groups will log on at “connected sites” in such locations as Lake Oswego, Ore.; the California State University East Bay campus in Concord, Calif.; Westchester County, New York, and Denver, Colo.

Kicking off the live Web summit on Feb. 20 will be a press conference at UC Berkeley showcasing the campus’s pantheon of experts on aging, including gerontologist Scharlach, demographer Ronald Lee, molecular cell biologist Paola Timiras and epidemiologist William Satariano. It will begin at 9 a.m. at the School of Social Welfare at Haviland Hall.

The multi-part conference is the brainchild of Scharlach, who got interested in the subject of aging while working at a nursing home. He said he saw too many residents there who instead should have been living at home, but didn’t have the support of families and government infrastructure. He acknowledged that creating aging-friendly communities won’t happen overnight, particular in a society obsessed with youth, but says the groundwork must be laid now.

Using the Internet seemed like the most convenient and effective way to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to begin working on these problems, Scharlach said.

For many senior citizens, particularly those who don’t get around as well as they once did, online networking opens up a whole new world: “I cannot tell you how important this conference is to those of us in rural communities,” said Karen Serrett, vice president of Southside Senior Services Inc. in Groveland, Calif., near Yosemite National Park. In Groveland, she said, 40 percent of the adults are over 40.

Seniors in Yolo County, Calif., and other rural communities will join the conference at libraries and other wired public venues. Meanwhile, at UC Berkeley, retired faculty and staff will be able to log on to the conference from the campus’s retirement center. The conference is being sponsored by the Helen Andrus Benedict Foundation, the MetLife Foundation, Sierra Health Foundation and The California Endowment, and produced in partnership with the East Bay-based Community Strengths.

Providing the technology is iCohere Inc., which offers software to promote community-building. For six months after the Feb. 20 conference, participants can continue to discuss the issues discussed through an ongoing learning program called “Community of Practice,” facilitated by Kristin Bodiford of Community Strengths.

This Wednesday (Feb. 13), participants can create a profile and begin networking with others in advance of the conference by clicking on:

Conference topics will range from rethinking transportation and housing options for senior citizens as they age to how to create lifelong career and learning opportunities. Speakers will include U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging Josefina Carbonell and American Association for Retired Persons president-elect Jennie Chin Hansen, who will deliver the welcome address with Scharlach.

In addition to hearing lectures and panel discussions, participants will be able to view images and other graphic presentations, and send questions via a text chat function. Those who miss live events can check out recorded sessions at their own convenience.

The U.S. Census projects that the number of Americans 65 or older will more than double by 2030 to represent 20 percent of the population. Studies conducted by UC Berkeley’s Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services show that most people would prefer to age at or close to home, rather than move to a retirement home. And this sentiment is echoed off campus.

“I would like to live at home as long as I can,” said Mary Johnson, 77, of Fremont, as she sat with her quilting circle recently at the Fremont Multi-Service Senior Center. Built in 1982 to serve the Tri-City area’s growing senior population, including its large immigrant communities, the center is a model for aging- friendliness.

A busy, lakeside venue next to the city’s Central Park, the center boasts dozens of activities, plus an on-site chef. Activities include Tai Chi, yoga, bridge, needlecrafts, current events briefings, language lessons, karaoke and a band that plays jazz standards. Groups that use the center include the Afghan Elderly Association of Alameda County, Indo-American Seniors, Lavender Seniors, the Chinese Club, the Muslim Support Network and the Parkinson’s Support group.

Researchers from King’s College in London, England, have found that people who are physically active are biologically younger than their more sedentary peers. They found that key pieces of DNA called telomeres shorten more quickly in couch potatoes. This rings true for Johnson, a great-grandmother whose many activities include exercising regularly, eating carefully and teaching people to read.

“I kind of thought I would be falling apart at this point,” said Johnson, a widow. “But I’ve never been healthier.”

Among the conference presenters will be Suzanne Shenfil, human services director for the city of Fremont and a 1975 graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. Through grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she has launched several initiatives to assist senior citizens in Fremont, Newark and Union City.

Shenfil helped create a program called Pathways for Positive Aging, which offers affordable services and opportunities to improve the lives of seniors and their families. She also started Fremont’s Community Ambassador Program, which trains volunteers to assist the elderly from such ethnic and religious groups as the Muslim Support Network, India Community Center, Sikhs Engaged in Volunteer Activities, Taiwanese Help Association, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish and the Centerville Presbyterian Church.

According to a 2005 Baby Boomer survey conducted by her office, 77 percent of respondents said they want to work for social service or nonprofit agencies and be civically engaged as long as they can.

“Even the frailest of seniors said they wanted to be able to give back to the community,” Shenfil said. “As we look at the oncoming wave of older adults, we have to start to think outside the box about how to keep all these people engaged.”


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