Seniors find a home away from home. Day-care centers for elderly spring up across US; in Chicago, blacks and Hispanics have facilities

Mary McAtee takes center stage, ``Good mornin', everybody. How ya all doin'?'' Then she unleashes a whirligig of greetings and gentle humor. She's no stand-up comedian, but she works just as hard to generate guffaws. She pulls and tugs until her listeners respond with a laugh. Or a smile. Sometimes there's only silence, but she notes appreciation in their eyes. And that's good enough for her.

Ms. McAtee goes through this routine five mornings a week at Bethel New Life, an adult day-care center on the city's West Side, where 25 senior citizens make up her audience - mostly black, low-income, age 70 and up. To her, laughter is the axle grease that gets the morning rolling. And for the next five to seven hours, she carries on her job as Bethel's program coordinator, engineering the elders through soft-paced activities.

Day-care centers, generally considered the province of babes and tots, are now burgeoning on the other end of the age spectrum. Numbering only a dozen or so in 1970, adult centers now total about 1,200 around the nation, according to the National Council on Aging. They're a convivial way of tending to senior citizens who can't navigate through waking hours on their own. Maybe the elders need physical help. Or mental assistance. Or maybe just being all alone has put a ball and chain on their days.

Clearly, for some seniors, these centers can serve as an alternative to nursing homes. Older citizens, who don't need round-the-clock care, are sometimes shuffled into institutions simply because spouses or adult children are employed and can't keep tabs on their elder charges from 8 to 5. Adult day-care centers cover this time period, and the big plus is that seniors can go home when day is done, remaining within the family embrace.

Amenities and activities at the various centers depend largely on the size and sources of funding. Some have spacious quarters with games galore, comfortable furnishings, and potted palms. Others make do with checkers and decks of cards, relying on plastic flowers to spark up the surroundings.

As for Bethel, its physical set-up is somewhat spartan, but staff ingenuity fills in the bare spots. Seniors arrive about 9 a.m. on Bethel's bus. Once the morning snack of juice and grits has settled, the limbering up session starts. If Jane Fonda walked in, she wouldn't even know exercises were going on because motions are mild, but they're sufficiently strenuous for these folks, geared to keeping them in shape for home chores.

The day's current events focus on light fare and local issues, most gleaned from the black-owned Chicago Daily Defender newspaper. It's the craft hour, though, that carries the punch.

Eva May Robinson, widowed 40 years ago, is making a play poodle from yarn and wire. She'll give it away to some ``young 'un.'' A mother of eight, Mrs. Robinson now lives with an adult daughter who works as a secretary. ``I'd get tired sitting by myself all day. It's better to get out and about,'' she says.

Next to her sits Gertrude Henry. She's so adept at crocheting that she can talk while working, not needing to watch fingers and hook. And she has a string of memories to tie into her conversation - things like raising nine children, starting a Girl Scout troop, and working as a cook by day and at the post office by night. There was also that memorable time in her younger years when she lived in the Virgin Islands. ``I gave the President the bouquet. The lame one. You know, Roosevelt. I was picked to do that.''

She stops crocheting to look at a companion who sits motionless, hands folded. ``If you don't try to do somethin', you'll never do nuthin','' she admonishes, but her companion continues to sit, hands folded. ``We got to help each other,'' Mrs. Henry says. ``We got to'' - and those words seem to sum up the staff philosophy at Bethel, an affiliate of the neighborhood's small Bethel Lutheran Church.

Most of Bethel's senior citizens look to the Illinois Department on Aging (IDOA) for their day-care fees. Health needs, assets, and income determine an aging adult's eligibility for state help, with the awarded funds channeled to the day-care site rather than to the individual. Sometimes the state pays all; sometimes part. The higher a person's monthly income, the more he - or his family - must share the day-care cost with IDOA. (Nationwide, adult day-care fees average between $25 and $30 daily per person.). During the '86 fiscal year, the IDOA spent about $3.5 million on adult day care, servicing approximately 2,000 senior citizens at 58 sites around the state, 23 of them in the Chicago area.

To keep budgets out of the red, centers generally count on additional dollars from foundations, fund-raising crusades, and private donations. But for some like Bethel, which are located in less affluent areas, these extra sources are lean at best.

A few miles from Bethel, seniors congregate at another care center in Casa Central, the oldest Hispanic social agency in Chicago. Although this adult day-care program goes back only six years, the over-all agency was started in 1954 with original funding from various churches.

After lunch, seniors gather in the Casa Central lounge for ``free time.'' The TV set is on, but no one really watches because pairs and trios talk while a mixed male-female foursome plays cards. Winter sunlight splashes through the room's windows, and in a bright spot, a sewing machine hums. Maria Bravo is making her way through a stack of mending.

You don't even have to ask Ramona Dela Cruz if she likes it at Casa Central. You know she does by just looking at her. ``Nobody home, I feel mucha better here,'' she says in tuneful English that occasionally carries an ``ah'' at word's end. ``At home, I taka my clothes outta the dresser and fold them. Then I putta them back. I varnish my picture edges [frames]. Then I sit in my big chair. Then I taka my clothes outta the dresser again and putta them back. It's a mucha better here,'' says the septuagenarian whose nails are lightly polished and whose hair is neatly tucked into a net. As she chats, the sewing machine continues to chorus in the sunlight.

On a couch, Concepcion Mendez puts aside Good Housekeeping magazine to say, ``I like everything here. They teach you more English. He [Francisco Dominguez, program director] teaches good. He teaches some people to write in Spanish. They don't know that yet.''

With this comment, Mrs. Mendez has hit upon a strong point about some centers. They tailor activities to clients' needs and sensitivities - even in small ways. For example, there are no breakfast grits at Casa Central; instead, the morning snack consists of juice, cheese, and crunchy bread.

The Reverend Daniel Alvarez, executive director, stops by the lounge to check out the happenings. All this activity makes for more harmony on the home front, says the Presbyterian minister. He explains that seniors who live with an adult son or daughter often depend upon their offspring for total companionship. When the young adult goes to work, the parent naps away the day to minimize loneliness. At night, the son or daughter is ready to sleep, but the parent is rested, ready to socialize. Sparks can fly when schedules don't jibe. According to Rev. Alvarez, day-care centers help remedy this, giving seniors a host of companions and an active day so they're ready to unwind by evening.

When the center's free time is over, the TV is clicked off; the cards are put away, and seniors file down the hall to hear a guest speaker talk on how to keep warm in winter. In a scramble, Mrs. Bravo stitches a final seam. Then she pulls on her mended jacket and hustles off. For her, the day has been doubly productive.

First of two articles on day care for senior citizens. Tomorrow, a visit to a suburban facility.

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