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Working With Elders to Stay Young

New America Media, News Feature, Ketaki Gokhale, Video by Max Kline Posted: May 05, 2008

Editors Note: Carrie Cook is 78 years old but has no intention of joining a senior group. She is much too busy running a senior program, many of whose members are actually younger than her. NAM reporter Ketaki Gokhale went to the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco to find out what makes Cook tick.

SAN FRANCISCOCarrie Cook inherited her position as director of the Third Baptist Churchs senior program when the previous director fell ill. She was only supposed to take over temporarily, until her pastor found a permanent replacement. This isnt something I volunteered for, but I love old people, Cook says. Ive always been a person whos cared for them. Now that theyre so attached to me, I cant quit. Every time we have a new nomination for the officers of the church, [the seniors] go down and say we signed this for you so you dont have to do it.

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Every Wednesday, more than a dozen elderly members of the predominantly black Third Baptist Church gather in the gymnasium to have lunch, stretch, play bingo, and pray together for friends who are sick. Usually they just talk about how glad they all are to be together. Many longtime members of the 150-year-old church have passed away, but those that remain come here.

Cook arrives several hours early to set the tables, lay out the bingo paraphernalia, and map out the days activities. Today, she is preparing for a special Easter lunch, complete with pastel-colored centerpieces and festive crepe tablecloths. She is dressed like a downtown professionalshe has on makeup and high-heels, a lime green blouse, sparkling jewelry and a flowing, knee-length skirt.

The days activities usually open with a group prayer and discussion, and then a themed meal arranged by Cook and her assistants, or a brunch at the local Sizzler or IHOP. Sometimes they get on a tour bus and take in the sights of San Francisco, and other times they come back to the church for a game of bingo.

While theyre playing bingo, they eat popcorn like theyre at the movies, Cook says. Just a few minutes before they get here, I have to make the popcorn. And before we do the popcorn, we exercise. We have a lady who comes in every Wednesday and gives them very vigorous exercise. Oh, she works them to death, you should see them!

When shes not here, Ill come in and tell them to shake, shake, shake, and we shake, shake all over.We put out chairs, so that if they cant do it standing, they can sit down and do it.

One elderly woman, who has arrived at 9 a.m., nearly an hour-and-a-half earlier than the others, sits in her wheelchair on the sideline of the gym. She is 101 years old and cant hear, but she watches Cook alertly. In the next few hours, the seniors will come in bunches in the church van. Itll look like a wheelchair convention, Cook jokes.

In a recent conversation with her two sons, Cook mentioned she needed to call her seniors to find out how they were doing. They look at me and say, Mama, helljoin the club! You shouldnt be working like this.'

Why? Because at 78, Carrie Cook is older than many members of the senior group she has organized. Her sons are grown up and in their 40s. They live in Dallas and work for the IRS and Dallas Head Start.

Im as old as these people, Cook chuckles. But they dont see it that way, and they dont treat me that way. They work me to death. 'Carrie, Carrie, Carrie,' all while theyre eating.

Cook was born in 1930, in Corsicana, Tex.a small city 50 miles south of Dallas, known for iron manufacturing. She had nine siblings and they were all taught the value of hard work. Cook herself has worked as a schoolteacher from the age of 20.

My husband says I have an ailment, but Im from a family that really worked like this, she says. My mother and father had nine children of us, and every one of us went to college and every one of us are professionals. I have two sonsand they work just like their mama.

As she centers a gray plastic rabbit on the table, she talks about community service, which she does a lot of. Before she became director of the senior program six years ago, she helped outshe would trek over to Third Baptist after her long days as a reading consultant and teacher at the John Muir Elementary School.

Even now, she makes time to teach English to young African immigrants. We do lessons that are supposed to go one hour, but we end up doing two because they wont let me leave, she says. Theyre so eager to learn English, because theyre working people. When shes not doing that, she tutors a few small boys in her neighborhood, and mentors teens at her church.

Youd be surprisedthe more you work, the more intelligence you have, the more education you have. People treat you differently. Education is the key to everything, I do believe. Its knowing your rights, and knowing whats right and wrongits very important.

If lives are measured in hours worked, Cook has lived many times over.

And she has no intention of slowing down, stopping, or joining a senior group herself. Old people make you old. I dont intend to sit with them. I dont intend to sit with them, ever. Tell you something funny, I still wear short dresses.

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