Every Tuesday morning, Paul Tutwiler and his friends set out from the Lake Park senior complex in Oakland’s Gold Coast neighborhood wearing orange safety vests and carrying cameras and notebooks. Dressed in a khaki cargo jacket and green felt hat while on a recent outing, Tutwiler looked like a hoary Indiana Jones as the crew headed down 17th Street towards downtown, stopping frequently to examine the sidewalk.
“Now look, here’s a really bad one,” 83-year-old Tutwiler said, indicating a buckled block of sidewalk. “There’s a jagged edge that’s about three inches up and it’s caused by this tree, as you can see. If you are sort of shuffling along and you don’t lift your feet as high as your mother told you to, then you stumble on that.” He jotted notes on his clipboard before herding the group onward.
Most of the seniors who participate in this weekly walk are part of a Senior Citizen Task Force that works with the Downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt-Uptown district associations. The collaboration is dedicated to getting the neighborhoods’ seniors more engaged in their community. Tutwiler and the others want to make it easier for seniors to get to nearby restaurants and galleries—and one way to encourage people to get out is by tackling obstacles to mobility, like reporting troublesome patches of sidewalk to Oakland’s Public Works Department.
Making it easier for seniors to get around will help them build ties with people who live nearby—and they say it’s good for them and for Oakland. “We’re part of a senior community here, but you know, we want to be part of this community,” says task force member Bob Redman. “We want to be part of the positive things.”
Progress on the sidewalks has been slow, but the group has had some small successes, like getting the public works agency to extend the length of crosswalk signals in the area so older people have more time to cross the street. It’s a minor change, but it makes a difference. “It’s making people from the downtown business district aware of what the seniors needs are,” says task force member Bobbie Bond, who’s worked on senior issues in the city for decades. “We have a beautiful area … and we want to be part of it, but we have to be able to get there.”
The task force got its start last June, when Tutwiler approached the district associations’ leadership. “He pulled us aside and said ‘We’d love to be involved in projects. We have [seniors] who are totally active and have tons of skill sets and they’re bored,’” recalls Andrew Jones, district manager for the Downtown Oakland Association, a property owner organization that works to better the district. Together, Jones, Tutwiler and a few others created a survey to gauge neighborhood seniors’ needs. “What we discovered is that there are a lot of seniors living here and most of them don’t know others in other buildings and don’t partake in a lot of things going on in Oakland because they’re scared,” Redman says. “But many are interested in civic things.”
Wendy Peterson, director of the Senior Services Coalition of Alameda County, says that it’s useful for seniors who live in different housing situations to be able to forge connections with one another. “Senior facilities are nice in a way, because they accommodate needs, but they’re also very isolating,” Peterson says. “By doing that, they’re out there in the community interacting with other people.”
Bond says one of the seniors’ main concerns is being vulnerable to crime while walking in the area, so the task force worked with the district association to promote the association’s “safety ambassadors”—the orange-T-shirt-clad security staff who patrol the area—as a source of support. The ambassadors work for the district association. They’re meant to provide an extra measure of security by looking for trouble and working in cooperation with the police. The group encouraged seniors to call the ambassadors to walk them to and from downtown destinations.
The condition of the sidewalks is another major safety concern. Peterson says seniors are right to take tripping seriously: “The minute you break a bone you’re in the hospital. You lose muscle tone and strength and it’s really hard to recover.” Plus, she points out, “Medicare and MediCal don’t really pay for enough physical therapy to get people back to where they were.”
The task force doesn’t just work on safety issues; they’ve also taken on beautification and recreation projects. Since January, the task force his been putting on a monthly event for seniors in the area. With the help of the business district, they held a cleanup in Snow Park, for which, Bonds says enthusiastically, she got to wear a painter’s smock and help give the park benches a fresh coat of green. They held a pool tournament that brought together seniors from four buildings to compete for a golden eight ball Tutwiler made himself. Most recently, they went on an outing to the art galleries on 25th street, for which Jones and his wife joined 12 seniors with their two-month-old son in tow.
The task force and business districts are also collaborating on a directory of local businesses—something of an insider’s guide for seniors listing restaurants and other businesses that suit their needs. (Not too noisy, and a friendly staff are imperative, Bonds says).
Jones says his organization is involved because it’s the right thing to do for seniors—but it’s also good for Oakland’s businesses. “There is a direct financial benefit to anyone we get on directory,” Jones says, “but that is a secondary benefit. The primary benefit is that our community as a whole is feeling like they’re part of something.”
Tutwiler has plans to expand the group’s weekly walk to include trash pickup and a sort of goodwill committee that will greet people, he says. “There are people around this neighborhood who need someone to smile at them,” Tutwiler said, clipboard in hand as he surveyed the business types hurrying down 17th Street on their lunch breaks. “Old folks represent some degree of depth of human understanding and feeling. The figure of the wise older person is real, and we can use that and just project it out so that people feel that this is a nice neighborhood and there are people who care.”
The task force seniors want to enjoy their community and say they have much to contribute. “We want to accomplish something. We still have our health; we still have things to do,” Redman says. “We’re not ready to go to bed yet.”