When Juliette Wheal, 83, first considered giving up her lifelong home in London to join her son and his family in Altadena, the idea of moving countries and leaving behind all she’d ever known was, in short, daunting.
But she wasn’t getting any younger, and her only son had made sunny California his permanent home for nearly 30 years already. She longed to be closer to him and her beautiful grandchildren. Although she ultimately jumped the pond, she was determined upon arrival to keep a sense of independence.
“I didn’t want to be a burden,” she recalled.
Shortly after arriving, she read about the Pasadena Senior Center and its events in one of the free local newspapers, and decided to give it a try.
“I came and looked around and just loved it. You might think it’s like a bunch of people sitting around in wheelchairs, but it’s more like a little country club — there are so many different classes,” said Wheal, who immediately signed up for tap dancing, Chinese line dancing, even a theater class. “I didn’t know anybody or anything here — I had to start a completely new life. But now I’ve met so many dear friends. I even met my boyfriend there.”
It’s been nine years since she switched countries, Wheal noted, saying she never could have done it so well or easily without the Senior Center.
Conveniently located on East Holly Street, the center has striven to help those like Wheal and engage and improve the lives of those age 50 and older since it was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1960. Now, with some 2,360 members, PSC provides more than 80,000 units of service per year to people all over the Greater San Gabriel Valley.
With slogans like “#AgeWell” and “Engage, Enrich, Empower,” the center has turned growing older into a proactive golden era of successful aging for retirees looking to expand their horizons.
“Pasadena is one of these towns you can put your arms around — it’s got great medical facilities and services, and people want to age in place,” said Akila Gibbs, the center’s executive director. “As people age, their world grows smaller. Their children move away; the phone stops ringing. And they have a hard time reaching out … so they come here to learn new things, start a new chapter and learn more about themselves.”
With 52 classes per week and four 10-week sessions per year, there is something for everyone at the center, which offers some 230 educational, special interest and physical activity classes. Many of those classes are member-driven and change annually — one man began a popular karaoke class, whereas others have included a club on film screening discussions or gourmet dining outings, as well as workshops on social media and smartphones, estate planning, card making, gardening, drum circles, Los Angeles Opera talks and a slew of health-oriented discussions led by medical professionals that range from managing chronic pain to treatments for melanoma and other skin cancers.
The PSC is even home to the critically acclaimed Tap Chicks, a seasoned tap-dancing group of women ages 55-85 who deliver live performances around the city, assisted by an enthusiastic team from the center that helps provide costumes, set designs, formation lineups or dazzling makeup.
“Classes change constantly, they have to — people’s interests change, technology changes. … We tell them whatever their interests are, they can bring the idea and the knowledge and we’ll provide the staff and the location. There really isn’t an average day here,” said Gibbs, who has helmed the center for nearly 10 years.
The PSC also offers popular arts classes, including watercolor painting and creative writing.
Those have even resulted in some award-winning works, Gibbs noted — so much so that the center now holds annual sales of pieces put on display.
Gibbs, giving a recent tour of the shiny Senior Center facility — nestled within Pasadena Memorial Park and its iconic band shell and swaying palms — pointed out one accomplished piece in particular. Gibbs had purchased it from a retired nurse, who’d only recently taken up painting at a class at the center.
“This nurse, well, she was so moved during the sale … she had tears in her eyes. She said she’d never imagined she would have a piece of art on the wall with her name on it,” Gibbs recalled. “That really moved me … that’s what people can do here, they can learn something new about themselves.
“To see people grow is just so gratifying. We don’t stop growing just because we get older.”
Helping seniors maintain their independence is another goal of the Senior Center, and Janice Dangerfield, about to turn 70, said that’s what she loves most about the place.
Retired from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for almost a decade, Dangerfield knew someone years ago who raved about the PSC, and she promised herself as soon as she had some time, she’d check it out. She was awed at how nicely kept the building was and how cordial and engaging staff members were.
She immediately signed up for every exercise class she could, including meditation, a Bollywood dance class and tai chi, and continues to attend four days a week.
“I’m in better shape now than I ever have been, than I ever was the majority of my life. I do it all and I love every single moment of it,” said Dangerfield, noting that the instructors are “fantastic and inspirational.”
Although she and her husband have retired together, she enjoys going to the center on her own.
“It’s such a lovely place to be, I was so very fortunate to find out about it. … My husband has his own hobbies and we practice a separation of powers, if you will,” she said, chuckling. “We’ve been together 37 years and retired together; we do a lot together, we walk every day and we travel together all the time, but we don’t need to be stumbling over each other’s feet all day long.
“One of the important things for people like me is I need to keep my independence.”
The Senior Center is there just for that, to encourage independence and teach new ways to those ready and eager to learn, Gibbs emphasized, although sometimes, those lessons are taught accidentally. She recalled one of the technology courses, such as tablet training and Skype calls, even social media like Snapchat and Instagram, taught by young volunteers from local schools.
One elderly man initially resisted using a cellphone given to him by his children. He was sure it didn’t work since he couldn’t get a dial tone on it. A young woman from Westridge School was able to practice phone calls with him, making sure he knew how to use the device.
But the range of center activities is for people of all ages, Gibbs noted.
“Sometimes women in their 50s come with their mothers in their 80s, and they aren’t interested in doing the same things, and that’s just fine, that’s why we’ve got something for
everyone. We want people to grow with dignity and pride and be involved in life and in the world,” Gibbs said. “I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to improve lives for older adults and their families.”
The PSC is a donor-supported nonprofit. To learn more, donate or volunteer, visit pasadenaseniorcenter.org.