Aging is a process that affects every individual differently, but in every case, it presents a unique set of challenges for the aging person and their friends and family. As a person grows older, physiological changes combine with dynamic family roles and an ever-diminishing pool of friends to create circumstances that may be difficult for someone to grasp when it is actually happening to them. Santa Barbara’s Center for Successful Aging is a free peer-counseling service offered to help people over the age of 50 cope with the trials related to growing older. “People are living longer, and want to know how to live peaceful and happy lives,” said Dr. Beverly Schydlowsky, the center’s director. “They want to stay healthy and contribute, because if you have meaning and purpose in life, you stay happier and healthier.”
Although the center-which serves roughly 1,500 seniors in the area-is housed at the Jewish Federation on Chapala Street, it is not religiously affiliated, and is cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara and Catholic Charities of the Santa Barbara Region.
The types of problems faced by many elderly people-dying friends, estrangement from children and families, diminishing physical function-can be difficult to deal with, and money available for mitigation programs is becoming scarce. At a time when global economic turmoil is finding its way into all aspects of people’s lives, the Center for Successful Aging is finding itself short of funding as grants and donations are discontinued. “We’re really the only agency serving these people, and if we don’t get funding, who else is going to do this?” asked Schydlowsky.
People who utilize the center do so for free, but there are costs associated with running such a program. “We’ve always been on a shoestring, so we’ve never had much of a marketing budget,” said Schydlowski, adding that this makes it difficult to get the word out to procure more funding. The center’s counselors are volunteers who each pay $300 to undergo training. Schydlowsky is paid to train and supervise volunteers and she administers the program.
Santa Barbara has approximately 1,600 nonprofits, all vying for grant money and other funding opportunities, so finding funds when private donations are at a low can be challenging. In addition, Catholic Charities has had to reduce its financial support for the center. “Unfortunately, the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles has some enormous fiscal problems due to [recent] judgments against them, and that has telegraphed to organizations that have no issues,” said Schydlowski. “We hope that when things get better, they’ll increase their role.”
Schydlowsky has already been forced to scale back the number of hours she works, which she said are mainly spent screening potential clients for suitability-some people have problems which are beyond the scope of the peer counseling approach, and a mental health professional is required to discern the needs of individual patients. Nonetheless, Schydlowsky and her volunteers have attempted to expand the program, including the addition of a class at the Braille Institute for people who aren’t blind, but suffer from low vision due to ailments such as macular degeneration. “We really have a vital role in the community, and we’re serving people who wouldn’t be served otherwise,” she said.
Most of the center’s energy goes into one-on-one peer counseling, but there are other programs as well. “At any given time, we’re serving about 120 people two to four times per month,” said Ralph Baxter, one of the center’s volunteers and its treasurer. There are a number of regular group functions, such as the Schmooze Room for Seniors-which is held every Tuesday afternoon at the Jewish Community Center-and a series of support groups held at the Santa Barbara area’s various senior centers and residential facilities.
Regardless of financial setbacks, the Center for Successful Aging presses onward.
New volunteers are being trained, and those who have been there for a while continue to contribute their time and good will. Volunteers, who range in age from 50 to 102, often have elderly parents or friends they are caring for. Schydlowsky said that the average length of service for CSA’s counselors is about 10 years. “My observation is that counselors get a great deal of personal value [from this] because in addition to helping someone else, they’re learning about their own aging,” she said.
Luel Hawley-Sedlak, who lives in a senior center, was part of a recent class of volunteer trainees. She said she wanted to provide meaningful interaction for people who have suffered losses and may now be lonely or isolated. Maria Gibson works at a private healthcare facility serving many geriatric patients. Gibson said that the center’s training would be beneficial to her job function.
“How to age successfully is a mystery because there aren’t a lot of models of it. We are the models - we’re setting the standard for successful aging,” said Schydlowsky, stating her hope that funding will improve soon. “This is a nightmare and it’s only going to get worse. Who do people turn to for answers? They turn to an agency like ours.”