Keeping Seniors in the Neighborhood is Focus of Lincoln Square Initiative

LINCOLN SQUARE — The neighborhood boasts its share of young families, as the planned annexes for Bell and Coonley Elementary Schools confirm, but it’s also home to plenty of residents like 89-year-old Tony Krier.

“I moved here in 1954 and raised nine kids,” said Krier, who has been retired for nearly 30 years, but still drives, exercises three mornings a week at Galter Life Center and does his own cooking and shopping (although he leaves the cleaning to someone else).

“I go to Gene’s Sausage Shop and notice most of the stores are geared to younger people in Lincoln Square,” he said. “It makes me feel if I need something, I’ve got to go out of the community.”

Trying to counteract that perception is precisely the goal of Forward Chicago, a new initiative by the 47th Ward’s Senior Council that aims to help seniors stay in the community.

“We want people to move to this ward, stay in this ward and retire in this ward,” said Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) at an event held at the Old Town School of Folk Music introducing the membership-based nonprofit organization.

The alderman pointed to a wealth of resources in the ward, including the Levy Senior Center on Lawrence Avenue, Old Town School, DANK Haus and faith-based institutions, all of which provide programming for older adults, who account for 7,500 of the neighborhood’s residents, according to 2010 census figures.

Forward Chicago was designed to serve as an information hub that connects individuals to these organizations, as well as relevant events and activities.

In establishing the program, the 47th Ward is ahead of other communities in accommodating and reaching out to its aging residents, according to Robyn Golden, director of older adult programs at Rush Medical Center and a speaker at Saturday’s event.

“These conversations are not happening everywhere; a lot [of communities] are in denial about demographics. We’re going to be caught off guard in terms of the graying of our country,” she said. A major obstacle, she noted, is the treatment of aging as a dirty word. No one wants to admit they’re getting older, said Golden, and yet “a 30-year-old should be concerned about aging well as much as a 90-year-old.”

Phil Ponce, Lincoln Square resident and host of WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, moderated a panel of older adults, all of whom embody Golden’s directive to “stay connected, keep doing new things, stay active and give back.”

Seventy-three-year-old panelist Audrey Kaufman retired at 69 and lost her husband six months later.

“I sort of slept for six months,” she said. “I was exhausted, depressed and didn’t know what to do with myself.”

Kaufman’s solution was to indulge old and new passions. She channeled her love of reading into a regular volunteer gig at Open Books, a nonprofit that promotes literacy, and recently took up the piano. “I’ve wanted to do that all my life, now I have time.”

Her biggest leap was to enroll in an improv class at Second City.

“Doing things that are out of your comfort zone, I think it makes you feel younger,” she said, although initially the experience had the opposite effect.

After the first class, Kaufman approached the instructor and said, “I’m the grandmother of this class,” as the only student over the age of 30. The instructor’s response: “If that’s what you want to be.”

Kaufman took the rebuke to heart. “This is a class, we’re all people,” she reminded herself. “I had a great time,” she said, and even wound up joining the “children” for the occasional drink.

“It expands your idea of who you are,” she said.

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Forward Chicago, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, envisions our neighborhoods as model communities for people of all ages, where residents can age in place while remaining active, engaged and influential.