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More Americans are living longer. Here’s a place that helps people thrive

Sung Ihn Son fell into a depression when her husband died. Making new friends and taking classes like dance and art at GenSpace in Los Angeles helped her feel happy again.
Allison Aubrey
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NPR
Sung Ihn Son fell into a depression when her husband died. Making new friends and taking classes like dance and art at GenSpace in Los Angeles helped her feel happy again.

The number of people hitting the traditional retirement age is surging in the U.S. Every day across the country about 11,000 people turn 65.

As many look forward to a new phase of life after retiring from their day jobs, there’s a need to reimagine places and spaces for people to thrive.

That’s what Wallis Annenberg is aiming to do. The 84-year-old CEO and president of the Annenberg Foundation wants to change the conversation on aging, and she envisioned a space where older people would gather to grow and learn.

Her vision was shaped by observations that troubled her. “I noticed older Americans sitting by themselves in restaurants, in movie theaters, in parks, in the middle of the day, and I’d think how sad,” Annenberg says. Too many people seemed cut off from society.

“It’s just wrong that old age has become a time of social isolation, and I want to work to change that,” she says.

Her vision has become a reality with GenSpace, a new kind of senior center in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, where people from all walks of life and backgrounds come to meet, take classes and share their skills, passions and personal journeys with each other.

“I still feel young inside and spunky,” says Ann Batcheller, who has found a community of like-minded people at GenSpace.

Words you won’t hear here are old, boomer or elderly. This is a place where people come to try new things and be creative — whether it’s painting class, drumming or writing a new song and singing in a choral group, as Lorraine Morland, 68, has done.

“If you can just step into a place and have so much fun at our age, it’s a wonderful thing,” Morland says. “You’d think we’re teenagers again.”

 Lorraine Morland takes art, drumming and choir classes at GenSpace. She also likes to sit in the library space and read. "It's a beautiful place," Morland says.
Allison Aubrey / NPR
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NPR
Lorraine Morland takes art, drumming and choir classes at GenSpace. She also likes to sit in the library space and read. "It's a beautiful place," Morland says.

Morland once lived on the streets. After years of hard times, she has turned her life around. She paints, sings in a choir and volunteers for Catholic Charities helping others. She lives on her own and says GenSpace is helping her thrive.

“We’re valued here. …They give you love and dignity. It’s a beautiful place,” Morland says.

What’s unusual about GenSpace is the mashup of cultures and backgrounds among members, who pay about $10 a month to join — thanks to philanthropic support from the Annenberg Foundation. Mary Collins, a retired teacher, and Batcheller, a retired legal professional, say they didn’t like what they found at traditional senior centers. “They felt very antiquated, very old, not me,” Batcheller says.

 Ann Batcheller and Mary Collins have become good friends at GenSpace. "I don't know what I would do without it," Collins says.
Allison Aubrey / NPR
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NPR
Ann Batcheller and Mary Collins have become good friends at GenSpace. "I don't know what I would do without it," Collins says.

When she walked into GenSpace she felt a sense of possibility. In addition to fitness classes, there’s belly dancing and tai chi. There’s a horticultural class, where members learn gardening skills, and a tech bar, where members troubleshoot challenges with their smartphones and other devices. Financial safety classes offer tips and strategies to avoid potential scams.

“The patience, the encouragement, the support,” Batcheller says, make it a very positive and dynamic environment. And, she says, the physical space is immaculate and stunning. A round atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows cuts through the center of the building, spilling sunlight everywhere.

Aging expert Marc Freedman says the atrium inside GenSpace feels metaphorical. He points to the late anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, who wrote about the idea of a “midlife atrium,” a place to step back from previous identities and experiences and think about new possibilities. Bateson wrote of a new stage of adulthood — when children are grown and careers are winding down — that can be the age of active wisdom.

Freedman calls GenSpace a prototype for a new kind of institution. “A new kind of senior center which approximates the midlife atrium idea,” he says.

 The atrium in the center of the building floods GenSpace with light.
Jason O'Rear / GenSpace
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GenSpace
The atrium in the center of the building floods GenSpace with light.

The idea of a new beginning appeals to Collins.

As an older woman, she had started to feel unseen. For instance, she’s noticed at restaurants “they’ll sit me at the farthest table,” even if the restaurant is wide open. It feels like she’s being told she’s not worthy of attention.

GenSpace has given her a new self-confidence to speak up for herself. “I always ask, 'What about that table,'” she says, pointing to a preferred spot. Being around so many peers has given her the courage to challenge the ageism that she finds so prevalent in society. “It’s very good for me,” she says.

GenSpace hosted a summit in 2022 attended by Hollywood writers aimed at challenging stereotypes connected to older adults, and it has launched a conversation series called Aging Out Loud. The goal is to promote narratives and storytelling that reflect the rich experiences and wisdom of older people, with the goal of advancing conversations about age inclusion.

“We have a culture that doesn't respect the elderly enough,” Annenberg says. When ageism creeps into our thinking, “it creates tremendous damage in the way we view people who we should cherish and embrace,” she says.

Annenberg would love to see other communities emulate the model they’ve created at GenSpace. Its location, set on the campus of a synagogue — in a very diverse neighborhood — also houses a school, which brings people of multiple generations into the same space. The focus for older people is to grow and learn. “I would love to see more places espousing this philosophy,” Annenberg says.

It’s a philosophy that has helped Sung Ihm Son, who fell into depression after her husband died. She was lonely and isolated. At GenSpace, she has made new friends and developed a passion for a new hobby — painting.

“Every day I touch all the different colors,” she says, as she picks up her brush and dips it into her palette of colors. “That’s kind of my meditation,” Son says.

Her big smile says a lot about the metamorphosis she has experienced.

“I’m learning every day,” Son says. Her depression has lifted. She says she feels happy again, and she’s even sharing her art with the world on her Instagram page.

She’s painting a new chapter in the atrium of her life.

Find Allison Aubrey on Instagram at @allison.aubrey and on X @AubreyNPR.

This piece was edited by Jane Greenhalgh.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.