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You help brighten their day

The first time you walk into the adult group at the Lealman Day Care Center, you get a wrong impression. You think the 53 elderly people in the big room are out to lunch or maybe haven't even gotten up for breakfast.

Meanwhile, a speaker is giving some good advice about nutrition _ and the audience is getting through it in the best way they know how.

Several Alzheimer's disease patients are asleep in their easy chairs. Some recovering stroke patients are sitting forward, slumped over their walkers. A few members of the Ninety-Plus Club stare balefully at the lecturer.

"This is a new vegetable," she tells them brightly. "The broccy-flower _ a combination of broccoli and cauliflower." She holds the thing up for all to see. "Can you tell me what color it is?"

A few voices drone, "Green." The sleepers slumber on.

Then it is over.

Then it is bingo time, and the room comes alive.

Most of the 53 old people are on their feet, moving about _ and not slowly, either.

"Margaret, where are you heading?" social worker Ginger Corvi asks an elderly woman who is caning briskly across the floor.

"To the ladies room," she answers. "Don't start bingo without me."

A tiny woman named Angelina peers at me dubiously, asks, "Who are you and what do you want?"

I tell her my name, my occupation.

"Okay, Jack," she gives me a grin and a playful punch on the arm and heads for a bingo table.

Nearly everybody plays, and they all use two cards at once. They play alertly; they need no help.

Clearly I underestimated their capacities by their lack of enthusiasm for the broccy-flower. Chances are, if somebody started lecturing me on nutrition, I'd fall asleep, too.

Anyway, nutrition lectures are the exception that proves the rule. And the rule is that the Neighborly Senior Services adult day care program at the Lealman (on 58th Avenue N in St. Petersburg) is an efficient and humane use of the United Way funds that help support it.

"These are people who would have to move into nursing homes if it weren't for programs like this," Corvi says. "They aren't up to living alone, 24 hours a day. Some couldn't get along by themselves even for eight hours while their loved one is away working."

At Lealman, the clients are brought in at 9:15 a.m., have a light breakfast, do some chair calisthenics, then hear lectures, play games, have lunch (usually the "main meal" of their day) and, most important, just socialize. They go home at 4:30 p.m.

Some attend once a week; others all five days. They pay whatever their income allows.

"Weekends and holidays, when we are closed, are the hardest for the clients," Corvi says.

Another of the program's blessings: It provides time off (to work or shop or just get away for a few hours) for whoever lives with and mainly takes care of the old person.

As always, I notice that the oldest are small and thin. Corvi notes another attribute of those who achieve great age: "They tell you what they like and don't like," she says. "They are feisty."

"Are they happy? Are they still glad to be alive?"

"Just ask one of the Ninety-Plus Club members," she says.

I do. A bent, egg-bald old man tells me: "Boy, you just watch. I'm going to make it to 100."

The United Way fund drive is under way. Contributions may be made through your place of work or through the mails.