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Friendship leads a Trojan to fight for independence of elders

Jon Pynoos’ connection with a 73-year-old leads to a life of helping aging adults and people with disabilities

It began in 1966 with a tap on the door. Jon Pynoos smiled as his new neighbor introduced herself.

A spry 73-year-old dressed in silk brocade, Dorothy Benton asked Pynoos, then a Harvard grad student, to join her for tea. In short order, they were close friends.

Feminist icon Betty Friedan, who taught at USC, would describe their intergenerational friendship in The Fountain of Age, her 1993 bestseller.

Connecting with “Mrs. B.” — as Pynoos fondly calls her — set his feet on a pioneering path advocating for “aging in place,” a movement for seniors to live independently as long as possible.

Pynoos is now the UPS Foundation Professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. He has written six books and hundreds of articles on housing and the elderly. He was a delegate to three White House Conferences on Aging.

“Were it not for Mrs. B., I probably wouldn’t have been in the field of aging,” Pynoos said. “I wouldn’t have met my wife, and I wouldn’t have ended up at USC.”

It was Mrs. B. who encouraged Pynoos to apply for a job running a Boston-area home-care agency tasked with keeping seniors out of institutions. That led to his meeting fellow gerontologist Elyse Salend, a specialist in end-of-life senior care. Naturally, Mrs. B. attended their wedding. The couple’s daughters Jessica Pynoos MSW ’09, MSG ’09 and Rebecca Pynoos MSW ’10 now also work in the field of aging; son Josh Pynoos MPP ’14 focuses on criminal justice.

Tea time

A stately brick apartment building on Everett Street had been home to Mrs. B. for more than 30 years when Pynoos moved in. She was unlike anyone he’d ever met: a refined, articulate, intensely independent woman; a divorcée who’d raised a daughter alone; a retired grammar school teacher who volunteered checking on elderly shut-ins for the Red Cross. Above all, she was a social butterfly. Her afternoon teas brought together a cross-section of Cambridge society — old and young, affluent and low-income, of all different races and ethnicities.

She was somebody who I wanted to get to know. I learned from her.

Jon Pynoos

“She was somebody who I wanted to get to know. I learned from her,” Pynoos said.

He hadn’t intended to be a gerontologist. The son of a prominent Los Angeles engineer and builder, Pynoos studied urban planning at Harvard. But as their friendship deepened, he started pondering “what was it like to be an older person trying to live independently?”

As time passed — Mrs. B. would live another 26 years — the hurdles she faced shaped Pynoos’ scholarship and advocacy. (They stayed close even after he returned to Los Angeles to join the USC Davis faculty in 1979.)

He saw their old Cambridge apartment building through her eyes: how the three flights she had to climb for lack of an elevator took a toll; how the fire marshal’s order to remove a dumbwaiter made grocery shopping infinitely harder. At 94, Mrs. B. fell in her apartment. She waited 14 hours for help to arrive, her telephone inches out of reach. Deemed too frail to return there, she was consigned to a nursing home.

“Hard as it is to believe, I am no longer mistress of all that I survey,” she wrote Pynoos from the facility. “If you can imagine anything more ridiculous than my being dictated to, you have a sense of how things have changed.”

Safe environments

When Pynoos visited, he didn’t like what he saw. He intensified his advocacy for “aging in place” and “universal design,” a framework for creating environments accessible to everyone, including the elderly and people with disabilities.

Today he directs the USC Davis-based National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification, and he co-directs the USC-affiliated Fall Prevention Center of Excellence. An online executive certificate program he co-founded in 2004 has trained more than 1,000 building contractors, social workers, occupational therapists and other professionals to help create living environments where seniors can age safely at home.

In 2011 he spoke to NPR’s Michele Norris about “Peter Pan housing” designed for imaginary people who never grow old.

The message is getting through. Senior-friendly design elements like wheelchair-accessible showers and variable-height counters — formerly deemed ugly and institutional — now boost a home’s resale value, according to newspaper reports. As boomers age, Pynoos said, the marketplace is embracing designer ramps, rails and grab bars.

At 73, Jon Pynoos is now the same age Mrs. B was when they first met. Over their decades-long friendship, he recorded 40 hours of interviews with her, planning to publish them as an oral history. That project is finally coming into focus.

Old friends don’t forget.

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