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Boomers will 'age differently,' Avenidas director says

Agency seeks more space as it braces for building wave of seniors

A "boot camp on aging" for Baby Boomers is under consideration at Avenidas as the senior services agency braces for a spike in the area's senior population.

The downtown Palo Alto nonprofit, a gathering spot for retirees, fields several calls a week from entrepreneurs looking to test their startup products on real live old people.

Executive Director and Menlo Park resident Lisa Hendrickson said she tries to accommodate the startups whenever she can, figuring that new products and services related to aging could only help as the Baby Boom generation morphs into a Senior Boom.

"This work, in whatever small way, is going to support development of some great stuff that's going to be fun and helpful to us," Hendrickson said.

By "us" Hendrickson means herself and the rest of the Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 and now turning 65 in the United States at the rate of 10,000 a day. In Palo Alto, fully one-third of the population already is 55 and older, and the proportion of elders is growing.

Boomers will age differently than previous generations, predicts Hendrickson, a former banker who moved to the nonprofit world in mid-career and is now pondering her next professional phase.

After 15 years at the helm of Avenidas she recently announced plans to step down and spend at least the next year managing a capital campaign to upgrade and expand the agency's facilities.

The current facility — Palo Alto's historic fire and police building on Bryant Street — is "bursting at the seams," she said.

"Baby Boomers are going to want way more choice — we always have — and we're going to expect services to be available to us because we've always had them available to us."

Hendrickson expects Boomers to demand — and invent — new solutions, just as they did when their now-adult children were infants and they confronted a shortage of child care. "Those of us who found that to be such a problem got involved, and child care options started to surface.

"I believe the same is going to be true for elder care to support Baby Boomers finding themselves dealing with family caregiver challenges," she said.

As more adults in their 40s and 50s find themselves caring for their parents due to longer lifespans, Hendrickson has noticed a growing — and earlier — awareness of concerns related to aging.

"I think people are finally 'getting it,'" she said. Caring for parents has "opened people's eyes to the issues and is also causing them to become planners. They say, 'We don't want our kids to go through what we went through.'

"It's better to have resources in place and identified ahead of time than to be operating in a crisis. To the extent we can help people plan and anticipate, we're doing more and more of that."

With social workers and information specialists on staff, Avenidas is better equipped than most traditional city-sponsored senior centers to help people navigate the housing, financial and health challenges presented by their parents' aging — or their own, she said.

Hendrickson credits decisions made decades ago to establish the agency as an independent nonprofit rather than as a Palo Alto city department, as well as a strategy of charging fees for many services rather than offering them free to all. Fees now generate 30 percent of Avenidas's $4.2 million budget.

"We keep them low and try to keep them low enough that almost everybody can afford them, and we also give away a lot of services, too, at no cost," she said. "But the fee revenue from charging from some services has made it possible for us to continue to grow. There are senior centers that are low- or no-cost everywhere in the country, and they're struggling because they don't have that valuable source of revenue from those who can afford it."

A woman's bequest of her house to Avenidas two decades ago sparked establishment of an endowment, which has been built up over the years and now generates nearly a quarter of the agency's budget. City support — 30 percent of the budget when the agency opened in 1978 — is down to 10 percent.

But the "secret sauce" of Avenidas is the engagement and diversity of seniors themselves, she said.

"You could be playing chess or fall into a conversation over a cup of coffee with a retired doctor or a retired Stanford professor or a retired postal worker — you just never know. One common denominator in general is that it's a very well-educated population, and the growth of our programming is a result of that."

Avenidas instituted Mandarin classes recently after a group of English-speaking seniors said they wanted to study the language.

"These are folks who are full of life, interesting and interested, and want to engage and learn, and we try to be responsive," she said.

Client demand has driven the closure of some programs, such as a traditional crafts shop, and the opening of others, like Avenidas Village, a seven-year-old, membership-funded program to support seniors who want to age in their own homes.

In her bid for more space, Hendrickson said she hopes to expand and upgrade at the current Bryant Street location but also will consider satellite venues in southern Palo Alto or elsewhere.

"The next challenge is going to be to take appropriate action and try to get ahead of this demographic change," she said.

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