Seniors want pals in Philly? Join FitC and make 600 friends

Members of Friends In The City (FITC) visit the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia. FITC is free and open to the public.

For just $70 a year, Philadelphia seniors can get together with hundreds of pals through a group called Friends in the City, or FitC.

It got started less than a decade ago, the brainchild of four couples who wanted to retire in Center City, take advantage of its cultural riches, and have an instant band of compatriots with whom to socialize, volunteer and look after one another.

In 2010, recalled Pamela Freyd, one of the original members, "a few of us started a book club and a walking group. We organized a pilot program to see what and how it might work or not work for more people. How could people be kept informed of what was planned? How could people register? Would people pay a fee for this to cover expenses? We decided that the internet was the way to go. We recruited volunteers to be in charge of some activities."

FitC launched officially in 2011. In about a year, it grew to 50 members. Today, there are nearly 600. "The slower the growth, the better, because it gave us breathing room to adjust what we were doing and create new ways of organizing for larger numbers of people," Freyd said.

Anyone can join. FitC operates under the umbrella of the Friends Center City Retirement Community,  a nonprofit organization of active older adults who share common interests and purpose in accordance with Quaker practices.  

Offerings include health and fitness, cultural, educational, creative, volunteer, and dining group activities and events, organized by members for members. Programs include music, book and film discussions, foreign-language practice groups, current-events lunches, photography exhibitions, and writing groups.

For more information, call FitC at 267-639-5257, visit www.friendscentercity.org or write Friends in the City, P.O. Box 2002, Philadelphia 19103.

Today, there's also a residence that offers one-stop access to services and health care.

Through grants from Friends Foundation for the Aging, FitC  "had an idea for an urban CCRC, but one that was loosely knit," said Deborah Frazer, executive director of the Quaker nonprofit. "Their original plan came together and was funded by us."

In 2010, Friends Foundation for the Aging gave FitC a $25,000 grant, then two more grants of $45,000 in ensuing years to investigate a virtual retirement community. 

FitC offers the option of buying into residential living in a condo building called Friends Riverfront; a concierge service, FitC Plus; and an aging-in-place health-care plan, Friends Life Care, a national Quaker-inspired  organization.  Both FitC Plus and Friends Life Care charge separate fees, and the costs depend on your needs. 

FitC members occupy about one-quarter of those condo units at 22 Front St., according to Lee Junker. A longtime member, Junker lives in Society Hill Towers and pays for Friends Life Care separately, as well as for FitC membership. 

"People want community more than anything else," said Junker, 79. "We want independence, but that there are good friends who check on one another and get together every week."

Joan Countryman was one of the original FitC members. She grew up in Philadelphia and, although she and her family moved away for decades, Countryman and her husband moved back full time in 2013. The couple and three others now live at Friends Riverfront. It's a central location in Old City with access to restaurants, hospitals and free public transportation for seniors.

"I loved the idea of retirement communities, but I didn't want to live in the boondocks," said Countryman, 76, who chairs the board of Kendal Corp., a system of senior-living communities, programs and services. 

"Quakers have thought through how to create healthy aging environments. I went to Germantown Friends in the late 1940s and early '50s. So when I heard there was a group looking to build or buy into a residence in the city, that was the answer for us."

She and her husband, Ed Jakmauh, 74, own a two-bedroom condo in the building and plan on staying through their retirement years.

"It's not only that it's in the city. We're not isolated as an old people's group because we have a demographic mix of younger people too. That's exciting," Countryman said.

FitC members who live at Friends Riverfront share dinners twice a week and own a community space that opens out on Front Street, which they use for exercise classes, readings and speakers.

What about health care? Members buy private insurance.

"In order to be part of Friends Riverfront, the residential part, you have to have Friends Life Care or equivalent long-term-care insurance. We age in place and stay where we are, so you have home health care and even hospice care."

One of FitC's first residents just died in hospice at 22 Front St.

"We're missing her. That's what we envisioned, and now it's happening. One of the things that's been helpful to me personally and our group to acknowledge is to confront the loss of a member. ... We're aware as the group of missing [her] and things she contributed. They're part of who we are."

"That's one of the strengths of a retirement community. We help each other manage that aspect of aging."

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