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Roving Senior Center Pops Up in San Diego

Agnes Conradt and Evie Kosower play Mexican train with their neighbors, Oct. 12, 2015.
Brian Myers
Media Arts Center San Diego

Twice a month older residents in a hilly, residential section of City Heights in San Diego, California meet to play board games. Each neighbor takes turns hosting a game, while everyone else takes responsibility for snacks. This week, it's Mexican train, a game similar to dominoes.

Evie Kosower, 81, moved in 12 years ago and helped form the sort of roving senior center. 

"Within the first year or two I kept asking, 'Where's the senior center?'," Kosower said. "There is none in City Heights."

This story was originally published by KPBS.

Kosower tried to campaign for a city-funded center a few years ago but hit a lot of roadblocks. So she began looking for an alternative to keep herself and her aging neighbors active and connected with needed services. The effort morphed into a group called Elders Living in Their Element

Nationally, the concept is called "villages" or "aging in place." Senior neighbors band together to create membership organizations. They host events and classes, help each other around the house, and check in on neighbors who become sick. 

Kosower said eventually the group in City Heights would like to collect a small membership fee, which is common among such villages, and hire someone to keep them organized. She envisions running a skills bank, where neighbors offer up skills like plumbing or mending in exchange for help when they need it next.

Agnes Conradt, 78, said the biggest challenge she sees for herself in the future is transportation. 

"We wanted to buy here because it's close to everything in San Diego. It's very easy to get around," Conradt said. "Of course now, you know, almost 50 years later, it's not easy to get around if you don't have a car."

Where Conradt lives in City Heights the roads are steep and windy. A city bus runs through the neighborhood, but transit services for the elderly don't.

Ellen Schmeding heads Aging and Independence Services for San Diego County. She said there are a lot of good programs for elderly San Diegans, but they're more patchwork than seamless.

"We've made good strides in the area of transportation, but there's a long way to go," Schmeding said.

The county reaches out to residents and service providers every four years to create a roadmap for senior services. It's kind of like a scaled-down version of the San Diego Association of Government's regional plan. Schmeding said in the past the county has focused a lot on the safety and health of seniors, but next year will zero in on challenges related to transportation, housing and the built environment.

But much of the funding to address those challenges has flat lined in recent years. 

The Older Americans Act spent its 50th birthday this year stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives. The law that pays for services for the elderly hasn't been reauthorized since 2011, and that means funding is flat as Baby Boomers age. Currently, the law provides about $175 per person annually.

"The realization that more money needs to be invested given the rise in population just hasn't hit our decision makers really hard," Schmeding said.

Kosower said she hopes the City Heights village and others in San Diego can help set the pace for aging services while lawmakers count dollars and cents. 

"It's up to us to start to do something and then try to pressure the other agencies, or at least let them know what we're doing and see if they can't help us," Kosower said.