- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

“Today, more than seven of every 10 people over 65 living in poverty are women — 26 percent are African-American, 24 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are white,” Marie F. Smith, president of AARP, told about 100 senior citizens attending a lively Saturday “Day Out” sponsored by theCapital City Chapter of the Links.

“Sadly, most of these women were not poor prior to the death of their husbands. But it is divorced African-American women who have the highest poverty rate of all older Americans by far — nearly 50 percent,” continued Mrs. Smith, the keynote speaker at the annual event, held this year at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest.

As Mrs. Smith, speaking from a 10-page prepared text, rattled off statistics and the effects of Social Security changes, Iris Royster, 85, of Silver Spring listened intently because “she told us things that affect us.”

“We’re concerned about security, rent and food, and she pointed out that many seniors depend on Social Security for their livelihood, and it’s very important for all of us to have, including me,” Mrs. Royster said.

She looks forward to the event, saying the men and women are “tickled” to be treated to gifts, cash, “a health-conscious” lunch of baked chicken, entertainers, clowns, health seminars and the famous free shopping boutique.

However, this year, Mrs. Royster’s favorite part was the AARP speaker, who is also a black woman.

“It was inspirational,” Mrs. Royster said yesterday as she related the day of camaraderie and activities.

The spry Mrs. Royster, who earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational management from Columbia Union College in 2001, invited nine of her neighbors from Hampshire Village and Leisure World in Silver Spring. She drove one car of the two-car caravan. The other driver was Iris Ellis, who Mrs. Royster said, is “much younger, about 68 or 69, and just retired.”

The seniors are so excited about the event that, Mrs. Royster said, “We dressed up like we were going to church.”

Stephanie Myers, a co-chairwoman of the event inching toward AARP membership herself, called Mrs. Smith’s comments “very sobering.”

“Social Security matters to us,” Mrs. Smith said, because “African-Americans, on average, rely on Social Security for almost half of our total retirement income.” (One out of every three black Americans faces retirement with no other income besides Social Security.)

“Here in the District of Columbia, for example, about 39,000 women, 28,000 men and 5,000 children rely on Social Security benefits,” Mrs. Smith continued. “Limited access to health care, coupled with limited financial resources, [is] at the root of many of the challenges facing older African-American women.

“Maintaining good health in old age also means maintaining social involvement at different levels — working, volunteering and staying connected with family and friends.”

Getting seniors out of their homes to interact with others is the main objective of the annual luncheon and shopping spree, said Marcella A. Jones, president of the Capital City Chapter. “This is a way to really celebrate seniors,” she said.

The senior day and boutique were renamed this year for Links member Alice Bowie Coleman, whose funeral was held two days before the luncheon. A retired D.C. educator and administrator, she founded the event 23 years ago because she witnessed too many seniors with little to do or having no visitors when she made volunteer rounds to city nursing homes.

The Capital City Chapter of the Links Inc., which celebrated its 25th year at a gala last month, is one of three D.C. chapters of the national service organization of 10,000 professional black women. Mrs. Jones said her 55-member chapter clocked more than 5,000 hours of community service last year, with each member required to give a minimum of 48 hours.

“We take what we do ordinarily and turn it into service for others,” Mrs. Jones said. Her motto: “To do good, have fun and make money for the community and the people we serve.”

She noted that real estate developer Michele Hagans is using her expertise to help renovate and upgrade housing for the Thompson family quintuplets, which the chapter adopted. Also, Verizon’s Deborah Royster, Mrs. Royster’s daughter and co-chairwoman of the senior day, coordinates an Intergener-ational Computer Project between her company and her Links chapter that pairs seniors with D.C. students to teach seniors computer skills while teaching children black history. Video of the yearlong project was shown Saturday.

“Oh, look, there’s Iris,” Mrs. Royster said, repeating her friends’ surprised reactions to seeing her in the videos. “This [day] gives us something to look forward to and gives us a chance to intermingle with other seniors and to meet with high-class people. It makes you feel good.”

“I saw two women with suitcases,” to carry their bounty, Mrs. Jones said.

Hats and bracelets were favored items this year, Mrs. Royster said, “but the first thing I look for is earrings. I’m an earring fanatic.”

“We had a lot of fun,” Mrs. Royster said. And, she added, “I learned something.”

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