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Frank Gruber

Growing Old Urbanism

By Frank Gruber

Friday night my wife and I had a "TSUE" -- a typically serendipitous urban experience. After attending a "Masterworks" concert in Barnum Hall that featured the Samohi Chorale and Symphony Orchestra singing and playing the hell out of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem," we were hungry and we decided to walk home via our favorite hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant -- POOM, on Lincoln Boulevard.

POOM, in case you don't know it, is a hangout for Santa Monica High School students, and the walls inside are covered with their appreciative graffiti. Santa Monica's teenagers may be troubled adolescents and all that, but they sure know their way around a good pad-see-ew.

My wife and I were sitting there enjoying our chicken curry and tofu and green beans and reading the graffiti when the door opens and a man comes in (and parks a bicycle), and he turns out to be -- former mayor Michael Feinstein.

Which was a TSUE because ever since reading that the former mayor's mother Beth died two weeks ago, and after reading Mike's beautiful reflections on her passing, Mike was someone I wanted to talk to. (Style note to editor -- this is not a context in which I will call Mike "Mr. Feinstein.")

I wanted to offer Mike condolences, but it was more than that. We share some experiences, and I wanted to talk them over. Mike's mother moved out to Santa Monica to be near him seven years ago, from Minneapolis, and my parents moved here four years ago from Philadelphia.

It also happens that this year, for the first time since moving to Santa Monica, my mother has had to be hospitalized, and then she had to spend some time at a rehab center. Now she is convalescing at home, in my parents' downtown Santa Monica apartment. Mike's mother lived in assisted living facilities in Santa Monica (she suffered from Alzheimer's), and while my parents, touch wood, are far from needing 24-hour assistance, my mother is at present receiving home healthcare visits.

I wanted to compare notes with Mike about what it's like to grow old in Santa Monica, at least from the perspective of a child with aging parents.

Even though Mike's mom and my parents arrived in Santa Monica in different circumstances of health, what they all found here was a first class health delivery system. Fortunately, they had Medicare and other resources to be able to access this system, but in any case, Santa Monica is blessed with two top-tier hospitals, the doctors that go with them, nursing homes and rehab centers, and numerous assisted living facilities.

These facilities are close to us. Mike talked about how quickly he could get to his mother at Ocean House from his apartment in the beach tract in Ocean Park. My father, who doesn't drive in Santa Monica, could get to Santa Monica Hospital and then to the rehab center on Franklin near Santa Monica Boulevard, quickly and easily from his apartment on Sixth near Colorado by taking the Big Blue or Metro buses that run continuously up and down Santa Monica Boulevard.

Readers of this column know that one of my missions -- pardon my grandiosity -- is to point out to Santa Monicans who are upset about traffic, or the homeless, or pollution, or other urban annoyances, that they get a lot out of living in a city -- not just the big ticket items, like the Dodgers or the Getty or a better choice of good jobs, but also the day-to-day stuff. For instance, I once wrote a column about "grocery store urbanism."

I'm calling this column "Growing Old Urbanism," because if you have a parent who is old, or if you plan to get old yourself, a city is a good place to be. Especially one that is economically diverse and densely developed with new apartment buildings.

Growing Old Urbanism goes beyond the medical system, the assisted living system, and the nursing home and rehab center system. You can find good hospitals, etc., in the suburbs, too. Growing Old Urbanism even goes beyond transit options and the walkability of neighborhoods, although that's a big part of it.

Growing Old Urbanism gets into the nitty-gritty of growing old -- how long can you live in your own home?

The day my mother came home from the rehab center in a wheelchair, I realized that one of the virtues of the new apartment building my parents live in is that, because it is new, it is 100 percent wheelchair accessible. The entrance, the elevators, and all the doors are up to code. All my parents needed the landlord to do was to add a grab bar in the bath, and to change a showerhead to one with a flexible hose.

My parents get all this accessibility, and all the healthcare options, without having to move to a "retirement community." They can walk to Vons and the library. Their best friends in the apartment building are Jonathan and Sharon, a young couple with a one-year-old. If you don't think that a visit from a one-year-old to an 86-year-old woman isn't therapeutic, you don't know anything about modern medicine.

I mentioned that my mother is receiving homecare. The provider is a woman who has kept house for our family and several others in Santa Monica for almost 20 years. My mother is the second elderly person for whom Blanca has provided homecare, and it looks like this will be her next career.

The fact that Blanca lives in Santa Monica allowed me, for instance, to take my father to the opera one night, because she can stay late, and my father has confidence that my mother will be well taken care of.

I should also mention that the personnel at the hospital and the rehab center were among the most caring and conscientious people you might ever want to meet.

Many of these workers -- not only the less-skilled who barely make a "living wage," but also many skilled professionals like nurses and physical therapists -- don't make enough money to rent market-rate apartments in Santa Monica, let alone buy a house or a condo. They may, in fact, qualify for affordable housing even though they make the living wage.

Blanca makes the living wage, but the only reason she and her family can live in Santa Monica is that she has a Community Corp. apartment. Two of her three sons, by the way, have graduated from Samohi and attend Santa Monica College, and the third is in ninth grade.

Santa Monica may not have much housing for low-wage workers, but if you are old, and you want to live independently in your house or apartment, or if you have a parent who does, or if your parent is living in an assisted living facility or a nursing home, you will rely on low-wage workers.

One of the more remarkable consulting jobs the Santa Monica Planning Department ever commissioned was a study that showed how much need for affordable housing was created by a household that could afford to live here. The purpose of the study was to provide the legal "nexus" required to justify burdening new housing with part of the cost of building affordable housing, but the lesson was broader than that.

Every Santa Monica household -- new or old -- creates a need for low-wage workers who can't afford to live here.

Everyone relies on the kindness of strangers. A city is an amalgamation of strangers -- of all economic classes -- who work in concert. At best, and I've seen the best in recent months, they work like a family, and not a dysfunctional one.

Perhaps it takes merely a village to raise a child. But to grow old with dignity, with independence, it takes a city.

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