As Northeast Ohio ages, stories of senior citizens need to be told
A few months ago, I was scrolling through the stories we’ve helped Northeast Ohioans tell through our “Sound of Us” initiative. I smiled at the many fond memories I have from hanging out with storytellers as they practice cursive, kayak in the Cuyahoga River and cook hot dogs on East 9th Street.
But there was one glaring gap in our repertoire: We hadn’t yet featured any stories by older adults. Ohio has the nation’s 18th-largest percentage of people age 65 and older, and that percentage is expected to grow by 2030. This was clearly a population that needed to be heard!
I raised this omission – and my desire to do something about it – in a meeting of Ideastream’s Community Advisory Board. This is a superstar group of local leaders and residents who not only advise our board of trustees but also help us as reporters and producers to improve our content and outreach.
I told the members I’d been thinking of reaching out to nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Advisory board member Doug Beach, CEO of the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging, raised his hand.
“Try a senior citizens’ activities center instead,” he said. “We have a ton of them in the region, full of interesting people who’d love to share their stories.”
It was a huge blind spot for me: I didn’t even know senior activities centers existed. But they’re all over Northeast Ohio — often run by municipal departments on aging.
Fast forward a few weeks, and Doug and his staff had connected me with the Donna Smallwood Activities Center in Parma. I started making regular visits, getting to know some of the seniors who’d expressed an interest in sharing their stories — all under the expert guidance of the center’s director, Erin Lally.
The place buzzes with enough activity to make the typical haunts of younger adults — offices, gyms, community centers — feel almost moribund by comparison. The daily schedule is packed with tai chi classes, drawing groups and themed dances. People congregate around communal jigsaw puzzles at one end of the lobby or gather around card tables for casual chats. Fueling it all are endless pots of hot coffee and snacks.
I’m thrilled with the stories that resulted from our time there, and with the fact that “Sound of Us” finally has its first cohort of senior storytellers. You can read and listen to tales of a woman who lost enough weight to join the Army — only to be dismissed when she got pregnant a year later; a transgender woman who came out in her late 50s thanks in part to the emotional support she found in martial arts and a World War II survivor who lost nearly his entire family in Europe before finding an adoptive mother in Cleveland.
That last story, by the way, got an expanded treatment on today’s “Sound of Ideas,” featuring storyteller Al Schroeder and reporter Ygal Kaufman.
New stories run on Morning Edition and All Things Considered Tuesdays through June 20 on 89.7 WKSU, or check them out anytime online.
"The Cut" is featured in Ideastream Public Media's weekly newsletter, The Frequency Week in Review. To get The Frequency Week in Review, The Daily Frequency or any of our newsletters, sign up on Ideastream's newsletter subscription page.