A place to find family

Center: The small senior center in Ellicott City is growing in membership as more people flock there for camaraderie.

May 08, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Carla Buehler is moving, always moving, welcoming a hundred people one at a time to the cacophony of her daily life.

Her exercisers thump in time to Shania Twain. Her card-players tune the noise out. The rest of her folks are getting their blood pressure checked, their dose of conversation and their coffee.

Buehler's Ellicott City Senior Center is rarely quiet - partly because everything happens in one 40-by-55-foot hall, but also because many have flocked to the place for its feeling of instant family.

Buehler, the center's director since the days when it was only an idea, is proud of what it's become. Thirteen years of temporary quarters hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the center's regulars.

"We think we've built a community here," Buehler said, taking a moment to sit in the building that Howard County rents from the Ellicott City Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Shirley Orr, a newcomer, is overjoyed that she found it. On one of her first visits, she had her blood pressure taken and was surprised to learn that it was too high. Now she's on medication to keep it in check. "It's helped my whole lifestyle," said Orr, 67. "They are so sweet here and so friendly, and we do something every day."

Buehler, 52, wants to keep her visitors in good shape. Part of what prompted her to take a job with the county Office on Aging is that her parents' health quickly spiraled out of control.

"My parents didn't age well," she said slowly as she made coffee in the center's tight kitchen. "Every step, it was the wrong step. ... If I can help any of these people live longer, well, then I've accomplished my goal."

On a recent Tuesday, 16 seniors kicked and stretched to rock music as instructor Tammy Reisler shouted out the moves.

"Arms bigger!" she demanded - and got an instant response.

Fred Barth, 85, had a game of pinochle going a few feet away, but he's used to the noise. He comes here every day.

"You concentrate on your cards," he explained.

Buehler weaved around the exercisers and between tables to greet Hannah Falter as the Ellicott City resident walked in the door. Glancing outside, Buehler frowned, worrying about the bus that was supposed to be here, the one that brings a crowd of seniors.

"I think I'll call them to see where they are," she said, bustling off to her supply-closet office, piled to the ceiling with boxes.

When Buehler was hired at the end of 1987 to open the Ellicott City Eat Together Program - which evolved into the senior center - the county had no space for it and no money for rent. She found a local church willing to share its fellowship hall during the week. She opened with eight participants - four of whom were related to her.

Now the center has more than 400 seniors on its mailing list. The rolls are growing by 20 people a month, a sign of the county's graying population.

Buehler is relieved that years of cramped temporary space is supposed to end soon, possibly at the beginning of next year. The county is building an Ellicott City Senior Center behind the Miller branch library on Frederick Road.

But as much as the seniors have anticipated this moment - some spent the past decade peering into windows of empty buildings, searching for a suitable home for the center - they hope it won't mean an end to the camaraderie they've had in tight quarters.

Regulars go on trips to the beach together. They invite each other to grandchildren's weddings. When death comes, many pay their respects.

"Maybe we make the circle fuller," Buehler said.

That's been true for her. Buehler's mother died in 1992; her father died 2 1/2 years ago. Seniors from the center have become stand-ins, offering support on bad days, giving hugs, helping her as she raised a family.

She has two sons, 22-year-old David and 24-year-old Richard.

"And a 74-year-old daughter," added longtime center member Velva Howard - 74 - with a mischievous grin.

That's the essence of the senior center: Sometimes the retirees mother Buehler. Sometimes she mothers them.

"Love goes both ways," she said.

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