Fa la la la la la la la la! Our annual (and wildly popular) Cable Car Caroling event is back for its 35th season. Each year, IOA supporters will board holiday bedecked motorized cable cars and wind their way through the streets of San Francisco, offering vocal merriment along the way to isolated older adults and adults living with disabilities at assisted living centers, skilled nursing facilities and private homes. It’s a toss-up between who enjoys it more…those doing the singing, or the ones being serenaded. One thing’s for sure—everyone has a smile on their face!
This annual fundraising event draws hundreds of participants—last year, more than 550 carolers brought joy to more than 1,000 seniors and adults living with disabilities across the city. At the end of the multicultural caroling event, participants will be treated to goodies from a local taco truck as well as festive hot chocolate.
This year’s songfest happens on Saturday, December 7, so get your tickets now! Proceeds support the Institute on Aging’s Friendship Line, the nation’s only accredited (American Association of Suicidology) 24-hour toll-free hotline for seniors and adults living with disabilities.
Two years ago, Scientific American released a startling story that took social media by storm. The story was based on a research study done on aging mice which found that delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC for short), the active ingredient in marijuana that can cause psychoactive effects and cognitive impairment, can have a positive effect on the hippocampus part of the brain which controls memory and learning.
Researchers didn’t stop with testing aging mice; they also performed similar tests on young and mature (middle-aged) mice. In the young mice, those exposed to THC exhibited cognitive impairment. In other words, they acted stoned. Whereas the older mice actually exhibited some signs of benefiting from marijuana use, such as sprouting additional synaptic spines, thereby increasing communication between neurons—resulting in more efficiently working brain cells.
The study has fueled discussions about the possibility that cannabis may help the brains of older adults function better. While this may seem hard to believe, it appears that THC and other external “cannabinoids” found in cannabis plants have the capacity to act as anti-aging molecules, or at least, improve cognitive function.
It could be a matter of enhancing what we already have. For years, medical professionals have known that our human brains naturally contain lots of marijuana-like molecules, called endogenous cannabinoids which activate specific brain receptors. While we have plenty of these when we are young, they decrease as we age. Therefore, it makes sense the brains of older people, who have naturally lost their endogenous cannabinoids over time due to aging, may indeed benefit from the THC supplied by marijuana and resulting additional cannabinoids (keeping in mind that this study was done on mice and not humans, so this has yet to be fully proven). Research aside, there is a distinct trend of older adults embracing marijuana use (and not just for medicinal purposes) in the 11 states and the District of Columbia where it is now legal. In California, where possession and recreational use of cannabis became officially legal on January 1, 2018, older adults are turning to cannabis use in record numbers according to this story in AARP. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans 55 and older now say smoking pot is morally acceptable. Perhaps these older adults have simply figured out something when it comes to cannabis use, whether it’s to relieve aches and pains, relax and have a good time, or possibly giving their brain a little boost now and then.
Judy Peterson, at 75, received the 2018 Outstanding Senior Award at the Minnesota State Fair, not just for one volunteering effort, not even for two or three. Oh, no – the list of Judy’s regular volunteering activities is far more impressive. Judy visits patients at Itasca Hospice, oversees the receptionist volunteers at Itasca County Tax Aide, directs ElderCircle’s free grocery shopping and delivery program, helps coordinate food distribution to families in need with Ruby’s Pantry, serves with Habitat for Humanity, Open Door Coat Rack and more. She’s hoping to add volunteering as an usher volunteer at the Reif Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids. Judy says her ongoing commitment to volunteering gives her a sense of purpose and of belonging, as well as friendships. This after raising her three children, and a career in the medical support field; as a medical transcriptionist, medical secretary, and manager of a medical equipment company. The title “Outstanding” certainly fits!
By Shawna Reeves, Director of Elder Abuse Prevention
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As we reflect on the pain and trauma caused by domestic violence, Institute on Aging would like to make sure that older adults are not left out of this very important conversation.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” Domestic violence affects people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, ethnic backgrounds, religions and genders. An older person who is abused by an intimate partner may have suffered in silence for decades only to have the abuse discovered – or acknowledged – later in life. Some seniors may find themselves entering into new relationships that bring physical or emotional pain. Domestic violence can be financial as well; an increasing number of older adults are using online dating sites to find love, only to find economic ruin and heartbreak instead.
What can we do as a society to address domestic
violence among older adults?
First, we can listen without judgment. Domestic violence survivors are not timid or weak-willed, nor are they suffering from self-delusion. Just because a domestic violence survivor is an older adult, it does not mean they are suffering from dementia or do not understand the situation they are in. People remain in abusive relationships for many reasons, chief among them that it can be lethal to leave. In addition, a domestic violence survivor often relies economically or socially on an abuser. To leave the abuser could mean losing one’s home, access to food, or being cut off from friends and family.
Next, we can take steps to support the domestic
violence survivor. In California, anyone who falls into the category of
“mandated reporter,” which includes caregivers and health care workers, is
legally required to report elder and dependent adult abuse. The list of
mandated reporters is extensive; you can check to see if you are a mandated
If you suspect an older adult you know
is currently in an abusive relationship, and you are a mandated reporter, you
must report the situation to Adult
Protective Services (or, call 911 if the older adult is at
imminent risk of harm). Those who are not mandated reporters can also make
reports to Adult Protective Services. In addition, putting the older adult in
touch with local
domestic violence resources or the National Domestic Violence Hotline can
be extremely helpful and empowering.
Fighting domestic violence against older adults is a
community effort. In October, as well as all year round, Institute on Aging is
with you in this fight.
Sarah Yerkes, at 101, published her first book of poems, “Days of Blue and Flame,” (Passager Books, University of Baltimore), having begun her foray into the literary world at 90 years young! Sarah started out as an architect, became a landscape designer, and in her 50s, took up sculpting–all the while married and raising her 4 children (one of whom passed away from leukemia at age 5). A chance encounter led to her attending a poetry writing class, which so intrigued her that she stuck with it, and voila! Some 10 years later, her first published work. Congratulations, Sarah!
Carolers young and old will gather Saturday, December 1st for one of Institute on Aging’s most beloved events, the 34th Annual Cable Car Caroling. This multicultural songfest brings holiday cheer to isolated older adults and adults living with disabilities at assisted living centers, skilled nursing facilities and individual homes across San Francisco.
More than 500 volunteers aboard 15 motorized cable cars will traverse the city, visiting about 60 locations over the course of the day. The holiday season is a joyous time of year but for those who are lonely it can be difficult, and that’s where the carolers come in, bringing smiles and laughter to those who may not have another opportunity.
‘A profound experience’
Few can speak to the impact of Cable Car Caroling better than Ken Donnelly, CEO of the Heritage on the Marina retirement center and a member of the Cable Car Caroling board. Donnelly says Heritage on the Marina has been participating in the event since 2013 and he has no plans to stop.
“It’s a wonderful event, for both carolers and recipients,” he says. “Not only do the carolers feel that they are bringing joy to their older neighbors, but they also see the various environments they live in and the frailties they deal with each day.”
As the CEO of a facility and a caroler himself, Donnelly says it’s a particularly moving day for him, but he says it truly is the older adults who benefit the most.
“They appreciate people from the greater community taking time to come and spread good cheer,” he says. “I think the carolers’ singing oftentimes reminds them of a happy time for them.”
Uplifting holiday atmosphere
“We see more than 1,000 seniors in a day,” says Tamara Cameron, IOA’s Events Manager. “For a lot of them, this is the only holiday celebration they get. It’s really special to do that for someone you know isn’t going to have anything else.”
Cameron says the participants represent every segment of the community.
“We have a ton of families, we have a group of Brownies who come out,” she says. “We have a woman who does this as her holiday celebration every year, then she and her friends meet at her home for dinner afterward. Everybody is represented. Some of our IOA employees come out, too!”
Cameron says the joyous atmosphere on the day of the event is infectious.
“The holiday spirit it creates is my favorite thing about Cable Car Caroling,” she says. “People show up in their holiday clothes, they are so excited to be there – it’s just a very uplifting day.”
The older adults at the facilities are always touched by it, as well.
“It’s a win-win because it is such a gift on both ends,” Cameron says. “It’s a gift for them to have us sing to them and it’s a gift for us to get the opportunity.”
Festive fun for a good cause
Imagine a world where you are alone – isolated and vulnerable; feeling hopeless, invisible, worthless, and unloved. For too many seniors and adults living with disabilities, this is a reality. Isolation and loneliness plague too many and it is extremely detrimental not just to the quality of life but overall health. Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).
Friendship Line provides a literal lifeline to these isolated individuals. Friendship Line, founded in 1973 by Dr. Patrick Arbore, Director of IOA’s Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention, makes and receives almost 150,000 calls per year to reach out to those feeling alone. By providing a warm voice to speak to and a person to connect with, this service provides an ally, a friend, and most importantly a human connection. The calls made at Friendship Line fill these secluded individuals with hope, purpose, and meaning. After the calls, they feel seen and heard – acknowledged in a way they haven’t for a very long time. It restores a light within that had dwindled. At its core, Friendship Line provides the human connections that bind us to life.
Last year, Cable Car Caroling raised more than $100,000 for this vital service.
A family tradition since day one
One of the most enthusiastic supporters of Cable Car Caroling is Zak Arbore, Patrick’s son, who has participated every year since the very beginning. Now in his second year as co-chair of the event alongside his wife, Renee Russo, Arbore says he can still remember the inaugural year.
“I was 4 or 5 years old when it started,” he says. “My early memories are of the smells, sights and sounds of the places we visited. The cable cars were so fun. Some of the cars used to have a bell in the back and I remember ringing them a lot.
As he’s grown older, so has his appreciation for Cable Car Caroling, both the event itself and what it means for the Friendship Line his father started. The sense of community the event creates, he says, is why he keeps coming back.
“When all the carolers come back together and share a meal together, there is an incredible sense of accomplishment,” he says.
To be sure, Arbore says, Cable Car Caroling is a family affair.
“My Dad started the Friendship Line and I have grown up in and around his work,” Arbore says. “My mom has always been a part of it, too; she is usually our song leader on our car. And now my wife and a lot of her family are staunch cable car carolers.”
How to take part
Cameron says the event always sells out, so if you want to carol, you should sign up as soon as possible. Those who can’t or don’t wish to participate can also donate online at give.ioaging.org/ccc. You can also sign up to take the Cable Car Challenge, wherein every $200 you raise earns you a ticket to the event (with a minimum donation of $200).
Anyone on the fence about caroling, Arbore says, should go for it.
“The holiday spirit has never been as tangible as when you are participating in Cable Car Caroling,” he says. “You are riding a motorized cable car through a world class city, you are vising elderly people who do not get many visitors ever and you are the star of the show. You can throw your voice into the group’s song and wait to see those elders’ eyes light up with joy and hope for the future.”
Now in its 36th year, Dinner à la Heart
represents a perfect marriage between two of San Francisco’s favorite things:
incredible food and giving to a good cause. After all, what better way to
support Institute on Aging’s work with older adults and adults living with
disabilities than by celebrating in the city’s world-class dining with family
and friends? And this year, Dinner à la Heart will also celebrate Dr. James
Davis, a very special person who has done a great deal to support Institute on
Aging and the community over the years.
What is Dinner à la Heart?
Dinner à la Heart gives Bay Area residents an opportunity to
select from one of many chosen a Bay Area restaurant enjoy a unique dining
experience, for either dinner or lunch, while supporting the Institute on
Aging’s programs and services. Diners enjoy a prix-fixe meal along with wine
and coffee or tea, for a price ranging from $85-$250 per person.
Inspired, then involved
Dr. Davis’ experience with Institute on Aging comes through
Mt. Zion Hospital, where he was chair of the Mt. Zion Health Fund and was
introduced to IOA through one of its board members. Hearing about IOA’s work,
he says, “Got me very inspired to get more involved.” The more he worked with
IOA, he says, the more he embraced its mission.
For more than a decade now, Dr. Davis has continued to
support IOA as a member of its board; his internal medicine and rheumatology
practice, his work with the Arthritis Foundation, and his work as a clinical
professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, are all
worthy of recognition.
When Dr. Davis learned he was to be honored at Dinner à la
Heart this year, he says he was “very flattered.” It’s a treat, he says, in
part because the event is one that’s always been near and dear to his family.
“Starting when I first came back to San Francisco, my
parents and my aunt were very active in IOA, and the whole family would gather
together every year,” he says. “Then when I moved back to San Francisco, myself
and my cousins as the next generation started coming. Now my kids and my cousin’s
kids come. It’s this big family gathering every year now.”
Dr. Davis says Dinner à la Heart is a perfect example of
what makes IOA special.
“That’s really part of the beauty of IOA, is this generation
to generation connection,” he says. “Cable Car Caroling is great for that now,
too. Multigenerational families have been coming to these events for years, and
they have a wonderful legacy to them.”
Honoring the past, looking ahead
For an event that goes back nearly four decades now, it’s no
surprise the planning and execution of the event is multigenerational, too.
Sandra Simon, co-chair of the Dinner à la Heart Auxiliary Board, has been
involved for 25 years, and her mother was involved for many years before that.
“My mother passed away in 1994, and one of her friends on
the board called and said ‘you need to come on and take her place,’” she says.
“I couldn’t say no!”
Simon says one of her favorite aspects of Dinner à la Heart
is the connections it forges.
“There are people who are always together,” she says.
“They’ll call to make a reservation for their group and instantly you remember
Simon says she is particularly looking forward to honoring
“Oh, I’ve known Jim Davis since we were kids,” she says. “He’s
been so involved and has given a ton to the community. Many of our supporters
were his patients! Everyone thinks he’s a great guy, so it was an easy
Davis will be honored and will speak at a special event at the Presidio Golf
& Concordia Club that evening. A social hour begins at 6:30 p.m., with
dinner to follow at 7 p.m.
Preparing for the occasion
Simon says planning for the event begins in August, and
picks up steam in December, when the list of participating restaurants is
finalized. Some of the restaurants have participated for years, but they always
try to bring in new venues, as well. On the day of the event, Simon says,
things get really hectic.
“We try to make it festive as part of the experience, so
every restaurant gets decorations,” she says. “And we also bring them gifts
from IOA’s day center’s program – they make notecards for this occasion. Then
our ladies deliver all these items to the restaurants.”
As for the popularity of the event itself, Simon says it’s
an easy sell.
“We’re asking people if they want to go out to dinner with
their friends,” she says. “People say, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
It’s no secret that natural light can transform a space, or
that it has a tangible effect on the people who live and work there. The
difference between a basement office with no fluorescent lights and a corner
apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows is – please forgive the pun – like
night and day. Simply put, natural light makes people feel better!
It was on the basis of this idea that University of Southern
California Assistant Professor of Architecture Kyle Konis created a study to
explore the effect of natural light even further.
Konis, who received his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, knew that people who work in spaces that have daylight exposure are more content and productive, while those without much exposure to daylight, such as nightshift workers, are more prone to obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. The logical next step, he said, was to think about groups that might be hardest hit by “poorly functioning indoor environments.” That’s how he came up with a pilot study looking at the impacts of daylighting on older adults living with dementia.
Daylight first, medication second
Konis and his team looked at about 80 participants across
eight dementia communities in Los Angeles and Orange counties. His study showed
that early morning exposure to natural light improved the mood of residents,
reducing depression and psychoactive symptoms, which are common side effects of
the neurodegenerative disease.
The hope is to use the pilot study results to kickstart more research on the subject. He said dementia treatment is often, and rightfully, focused first and foremost on delaying memory, learning, and language degradation. What is often overlooked is the depression, agitation, and difficulty sleeping that often comes along with a dementia diagnosis. Lack of exposure to daylight leaves people feeling moody and sluggish, a feeling similar to jet lag. While depression can be treated pharmacologically, there are other options, like mindfulness and meditation. Konis hopes that his study and further research will allow some dementia sufferers to live happier, healthier lives without the need for medication.
Other research backs Konis up
Konis isn’t alone in his pursuit, either. In the Netherlands, there is a village-like community for older adults with dementia called Hogeweyk. They live in houses just like their old homes, they have gardens, and they shop at the local grocery using special currency. And in the United States, the Green House Project is taking a similar approach. The Green House Project, a national non-profit dedicated to creating alternative living environments to traditional nursing home care facilities, also mimics the feeling of home by giving their campuses the look and feel of a residential neighborhood. “This is a disease or problem that’s been almost totally focused on pharmaceutical cures. There are lots of other things we can do to make a difference,” said Victor Regnier, a professor who has dual appointments in gerontology and architecture at USC. “If you can create a setting [like Hogeweyk or Green House] that’s more normalized — less rules and more improvisational attitudes — it’s just better.”
Environment clearly has an impact
While Regnier and others look at the broader environmental
impact on dementia patients, Konis said he hopes to continue his research on
the effects of natural light. As the dementia population is predicted to
dramatically increase in the coming decades, Konis’ research could be hugely
“There’s a huge demand now for housing people with dementia,” he said. “Dementia care, in terms of the companies that operate them, they’re buying existing medical facilities or hotels and repurposing those buildings. They’re not always thoughtfully designed from the ground up.”
September 8 to 14
is National Suicide Prevention Week (and September is Suicide Prevention
Month). It’s a time to share what we can do to prevent tragedies occurring with
the ones we love and others around us.
We often hear
about suicide victims when they are celebrities or if they are young, but
rarely do we hear about seniors. Yet, older adults, who make up 12% of the U.S. population, account
for 18% of all suicide deaths, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
To explore the topic
of suicide and seniors, we spoke with Dr. Patrick Arbore, the Director of Institute on Aging’s Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and the founder of our Friendship Line. Dr. Arbore founded the Friendship Line
in 1973, which is the only accredited
crisis line in the country for people aged 60 years and older. Here is his
advice on what to do if an older person you love or know may be in trouble.
Q: What are the signs that an older
person may be having suicidal thoughts?
A: When an
older adult tells you that they don’t feel as if they belong anymore, or they
tell you that they feel like a burden, you must listen carefully to what they
say. A perception of thwarted belongingness and believing that you are a
burden to others is connected to thoughts of death. The older person
becomes alienated from whatever support system they may have. For human
creatures, this sense of alienation is very painful since humans are hard wired
to connect with others.
Q: If you suspect an older person might
be thinking about doing something rash, what should you do?
A: If an older
person is thinking about death and they have the capacity to inflict self-harm,
this is a crisis situation. You must act quickly if you are going to interrupt
the development of their suicidal ideation. If this older adult has both the
desire and the capability to end their life, your immediate action is to call
However, if the
person desires to end their life but does not have a plan to do so, stay in
contact with them until the emotional pain subsides. Contact our Friendship Line, which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a
week, 365 days a year. Friendship Line staff and volunteers are ready to
receive a call from both you and the older person. In San Francisco, we
can arrange to make outreach calls to the senior on a daily basis in order to
help create a supportive connection with them. Remember that connections
to others are what bind us to life.
Q: Any other actions you can take?
A: Once the older adult is back to feeling emotionally stable, you may need to speak to someone at the Friendship Line about your own feelings. Helping other people who are suffering emotional pain is not easy. Remember to take care of yourself as well.
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