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Fifty as the age when San Diegans are senior

The older you get

Sixty-eight-year-old Evelyn Herrmann has been the only director Senior Services has had. A city employee since 1958, she has built the program from scratch.
  • Sixty-eight-year-old Evelyn Herrmann has been the only director Senior Services has had. A city employee since 1958, she has built the program from scratch.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

Wednesday morning, nine o’clock, a dozen men and women, alone and in couples, entered through the glass doors of the Senior Citizens Services office in city hall at 202 C Street. All were neatly and casually dressed in light colors, and they chatted with one another as they walked. One man supported himself on the handle of a sturdy wooden cane. Out of the dozen faces, only his reflected pain.

North Park Rec Center. "In establishing the nutrition program, I requested the city manager and the council not have a means test."

North Park Rec Center. "In establishing the nutrition program, I requested the city manager and the council not have a means test."

Variously, the faces were lined, cross-hatched, wrinkled, freckled from years in the sunshine, and the hair was gray, white, salt-and-pepper, tinted pale blue, hennaed, dyed bronze. One man had balded. Most wore glasses. Flesh-toned hearing aid buttons showed in several ears. More women among them than men, they clustered at one end of the long counter behind which the Senior Services staff and volunteers work.

Wednesdays are the busiest days in the Senior Services office.

Wednesdays are the busiest days in the Senior Services office.

Two sisters and the husband of one of them — the husband in a blousy aloha shirt of the kind Harry Truman wore — having gathered fresh issues of The Trolley News and Senior World, moved to the rack of city bus schedules. Her blue eyes looking out from behind trifocal glasses with the pensive glance of a girl, the younger sister turned the rack slowly.

“They’ve been going on like this for seventy years,” said the elder sister’s husband.

“They’ve been going on like this for seventy years,” said the elder sister’s husband.

Retired from teaching sixth grade, widowed for two years, she recently moved to San Diego from a small Oklahoma town. “What it costs you in rent,” her elder sister had written to her, “you’ll save in heat bills.” The younger sister likes the climate and, so far, the people. She has begun to get acquainted at her church, and she hopes to join a bridge group and perhaps get involved, as she was back home, in politics at the precinct level.

Several others can get about only with the help of walkers.

Several others can get about only with the help of walkers.

But she does not feel up to learning to drive the California freeways. Her older sister assured her, again, that she will get used to all the “come and go of the cars.” The younger shook her head in the negative, saying plaintively, “Just don’t rush me.” The elder sister’s high forehead furrowed. Her lips tightened. “They’ve been going on like this for seventy years,” said the elder sister’s husband, passing a Padres baseball cap back and forth from one hand to the other.

Heerrmann: “He asks me when I am going to retire, and I say, ‘Never, never.’ ”

Heerrmann: “He asks me when I am going to retire, and I say, ‘Never, never.’ ”

Although Wednesdays are the busiest days in the Senior Services office, with between seventy and one hundred men and women coming in from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to have photographs taken for senior discount and transit ID cards, older citizens are in and out of city hall’s ground floor all day. According to one of the more than thirty senior volunteers who help out in the office, many people stop by just to chat. “So many people are by themselves. They want to get out of these rooms they live in,” he said. “They get dressed, get on the bus, come down here, just to talk to somebody for a few minutes.”

But most of the one hundred or so older men and women who visit the Senior Services office each day, or the more than one hundred who telephone the office daily, want information about recreation and services available to San Diego’s older population through Senior Services. These include: more than eighty clubs that meet in various recreation centers and fifteen senior facilities in parks throughout the city; social clubs; Spanish-speaking clubs; travel clubs; the Telephone a Partner program (TAP), which provides daily contact to more than one hundred men and women seven days per week; a hospital visitation and entertainment program; the senior nutrition program, which offers sixty-five-cent hot lunches at six public school sites and two recreation department sites, as well as an eighty-five-cent Meals on Wheels service; a senior employment service; a literacy program that teaches seniors to tutor those, including the elderly, with reading and writing disabilities; information on health services and educational projects; life and health insurance analyses and aid in filling out the complex Medicare forms; and help with tax problems by experts in those fields. The senior discount program, through which those over fifty-five receive reduced rates for stage shows, concerts, art exhibits, sporting events, trips, one-day excursions, and so on, also draws a steady tide in and out of the office.

From behind the long counter that runs in front of Senior Services’ offices, Evelyn Herrmann, supervisor of senior citizens’ social programs for the city parks and recreation department, along with her staff and volunteers, dispenses a gemutlich homeyness that university social welfare departments can’t teach and money won’t buy. And more often than not, they supply this on a first-name basis, with hugs and handshakes on greeting and parting.

The first city in the United States to hire a full-time director for senior programs was San Diego. Evelyn Herrmann was that person, and the sixty-eight-year-old has been the only director Senior Services has had. A city employee since 1958, she has built the program from scratch. Herrmann, who complains that her mother kept her in frills all through her girlhood, dresses in tailored grays and navy blues to which she adds a ruffled blouse or figured silk scarf. Her sonorous, resonant speaking voice — a gift or a curse, she is not sure which — retains the accent of her childhood home in Philadelphia, and it enables her friends and acquaintances to find her in the largest crowds. “All I have to do is open my mouth,’’ she says.

San Diego was one of the first communities in the nation to issue ID cards for seniors, together with lists of merchants and activities that offer discounted service to seniors. Because these lists are given out at the same time as the ID cards, merchants are more willing to offer discounts in order to win senior citizen business.

Herrmann developed the program twenty years ago, designing the ID cards and having them printed at her own expense. They were given out free. But the cards got lost or were run through the washing machine in a pocket. “I decided that it was the old story about something not seeming valuable unless it cost something,’’ recalled Herrmann. “So we started charging twenty-five cents for the card, and over a few years’ time, I had filled up pickle jars with quarters and registered almost 50,000 people. One day I went in to my boss and asked, ‘What should I do with all these quarters?’ He asked me what I was talking about, and I told him that I had been charging for ID cards. He looked horrified, explaining to me that I was not supposed to be gathering up money in this way, and said, ‘Give them to your secretary and have her count them.’ I said, ‘She will kill me.’ He told me, I will kill you.’ Anyway, we got what turned out to be 50,000 quarters counted, and we established a trust fund for senior citizens under the department of recreation, which went on to pay for the establishment of our first three months in the senior nutrition program.’’ Currently the office sells 4000 ID cards per year, for a dollar apiece. Altogether, Herrmann estimated that Senior Services has issued 90,000 ID cards.

Hs of the 1980 census, persons sixty-five and over constituted a bit more than ten percent of the U.S. population. According to Herrmann, slightly more than 100,000 “seniors’’ live in San Diego proper. Senior population in the county is approximately 240,000. “Seniors,” rather than “senior citizens,” “the elderly,” or “retired,” is Senior Services’ preferred designation for the older population. Herrmann does not thrill to the term but remarks on the difficulty in finding a better one.

The age at which a person is formally deigned a senior citizen differs not only among levels of government but also among agencies within each of these levels. “Even Uncle Sam can’t decide who’s a senior,” said Herrmann. “At the White House Conference on Aging, they called forty-five-year-old women ‘older women.’ And at a national level, some senior programs begin at forty-five. This shocks a lot of my younger friends, but if you are in the employment field, forty-five is considered ‘senior’ because it is often difficult to find employment after forty-five. At fifty-five you qualify for the federal Senior Aide program. At sixty you are entitled to work in some subsidized volunteer programs — foster grandparents, that kind of thing. If you are sixty and a widow, you can get social security early. If you’re sixty-two, you can get social security early, but you do not yet qualify for Medicare. At sixty-two you can get a senior’s bus pass, but you only have to be sixty to get one for the trolley.”

Herrmann set fifty as the age at which San Diegans are "senior,” reasoning that with the city’s large military population, many of its citzens plan to retire at a relatively young age. ‘‘But the word old is relative. I put -er next to it. Your older neighbors, your parents and grandparents are no different than you. We are all of the same fabric.”

She is one of those persons, she admits readily, who use any opportunity that comes her way to sermonize. In the midst of arranging one of the twice-yearly seniors’ fashion show with an assistant, she announced exultantly, ‘‘Old and pretty! How about old and pretty? Age is beauty. Wrinkles are a sign of valor.”

At sixty-eight years old, Herrmann has her share of wrinkles. She recently celebrated her birthday, and a parade of birthday cards had been tacked on a bulletin board, together with snapshots in which Herrmann is posed with older men and women on trips sponsored by Senior Services, a picture of her talking earnestly with Pete Wilson at the 1981 White House Conference on Aging, and one of her in conversation with ex-Mayor Hedgecock. Observing that she is one of the few women of her generation who will tell her age, Herrmann went on to note that, generally, older women will not divulge their income or if they can read or write. Herrmann turns up a surprising number of seniors whose reading skills are minimal.

Peering out shyly from beneath a wide-brimmed hat, a woman tapped on the portable partition between Herrmann’s private office and outer offices. “Come on in, Roslyn,” beckoned Herrmann. Roslyn, at Herrmann’s behest, took a chair across from the desk. Herrmann had arranged an interview for Roslyn for a twenty-hour-per-week clerical job funded for the elderly through the U.S. Department of Labor. Roslyn feared that the “means test,” applied to her annual income of approximately $6000, would put her above the level of income allowed by the Labor Department for the position for which she was applying.

Herrmann decries the means tests. These criteria for program eligibility use gross income as their measure. Herrmann believes that eligibility should be established by finding out, after expenses, exactly what an applicant has left over. “Take the case,” she offered, “of a woman whose income is pretty good, say twenty thousand per year. But what if she is paying fourteen hundred a month to maintain her husband in a nursing home? What is she living on? A means test is unfair to her.

“Then there is another side to the means test question: seniors tend not to want to tell their income. Those people on a really low income, because they are proud, will not admit that their income is so small, and therefore they will deprive themselves of participation in programs. In establishing the nutrition program, I requested the city manager and the council not have a means test. Because there are requirements for living other than how much money you make. There is the social need. People need to be social. They need to get out of their homes or they die. So what difference does it make if the income is five or six or eight or ten thousand? It is what they have left, after fixed expenses, that counts.”

Herrmann assured Roslyn she was “right under the wire” for the Labor Department position, which was good news: Roslyn often finds herself financially strapped. But she wants a job for more than the money it would provide. “I’m not going to stay home and gossip and play cards,” said Roslyn, great determination firming up her soft and slow Mississippi-accented speech. “I’m not that kind of woman!” Roslyn, who has clerical and bookkeeping skills, said that she had worked all of her life, beginning as a teen-ager when she clerked in her father’s store. She shook her head as she apprised Herrmann of her recent troubles finding work. For seventy-year-old Roslyn, age is the big problem when she applies for work. Her pale, lightly freckled skin flushing, she admitted, “I say I am sixty-eight. If I say I am seventy, they say, ‘I’m sorry. We can’t use you.’ ”

Before Roslyn left, Herrmann gave her directions as to which bus to take to her interview, and Roslyn, tears welling, turned and said, “Evelyn is so sweet. She really fights for us senior citizens.”

Government figures show that women over fifty-five are twice as likely to be poor as men and that more women live alone at older ages, with lower incomes than men. Because older women outnumber older men by nearly fifty percent, older women are much more likely to be widowed than are older men. This difference begins among persons in their fifties and continues to grow with age, until among persons eighty-five and over, women are about twice as likely to be widowed as are men. But it is the plight of females between forty-five and sixty-five that particularly troubles Herrmann. “They suffer most in this society,” she said, explaining that even women past fifty-five are not eligible for ninety percent of discount services, senior housing. Medicare, or local free health services. They are ineligible for the sixty-five-cent lunches served five days per week at the city’s eight nutrition sites — although the city, Herrmann said, “is kinder than the county. The city lets these women come into the lunch program when they turn fifty-five. For county eligibility you have to be sixty.”

Every week Herrmann sees three to five women in the forty-five to sixty-five age group — divorced, widowed, or never married, women in “horrible, simply desperate situations.” Typically these women have worked and now are divorced. “When you get in your forties, and your husband seeks out a nice eighteen-year-old? Men have options women don’t,” Herrmann said with a scowl. “Women have no way out.”

Once a year Herrmann speaks to a group of military widows. She told the story of her first such meeting. “Very brightly I said, ‘You people have it made. You are entitled to all these military privileges.’ Boy, did they set me straight! They told me they were not. If the men had made no provisions for them, then when the men die, there is no insurance. Here were these officers’ wives, living high on the hog for years, and then the whole world collapses around them. We found that in Rancho Bernardo there are retired military widows on welfare. That’s a select neighborhood, and it’s hard to believe.” Women in this forty-five to sixty-five age bracket want work, and they actively seek jobs. In the employment service section of Senior Services, volunteers help these women find at least part-time employment as secretaries, waitresses, sitters. “House sit, babysit, plant sit, pet sit, pet walk,” said Herrmann. “Some of the women will take anything.” Unbeknownst to many people, the Senior Services’ employment files contain the names of myriad seniors with trade and professional skills, men and women wanting work — as tax preparation consultants, electricians, seamstresses, plumbers, mechanics — and willing to do the work for lower than average wages. The card file maintained by Senior Services volunteers contains names of retired persons available for employment as carpenters, cashiers, janitors, translators, teachers, TV repairmen,draftsmen,public relations experts, ministers, gardeners, dog trainers, chefs, and more.

Ht ages eighty to eighty-four, nearly forty-five percent of women live alone, compared to twenty percent of men. Although in general the incomes of elderly households headed by females is fifty to sixty percent that of male-headed elderly households, many of these women are not destitute financially, said Herrmann — “they are destitute emotionally.” She told the story of a woman who had recently come to the office to ask advice. “She has cancer and she has no one in the whole world — no children, no sisters or brothers. She does not want her neighbors to know. Her doctors are treating her in an offhand manner. They let her know there is no hope. She went to an attorney. He told her to liquidate everything she has and that he will take care of her until she dies. She immediately ran! I gave her the name of some attorneys I know, attorneys who do care. And I called the hospice service.” Herrmann sighed, saying, ‘‘A person in this situation, you look at them and think, ‘Dear God, please, when they go, let them go fast.’ She says she is not afraid to die. It is that she is alone.”

Only among the oldest age groups is a substantial proportion of the elderly likely to live in homes for the aged. For instance, only one percent of men and women between sixty-five and sixty-nine are in such homes. At ages seventy-five to seventy-nine, about five percent of women and four percent of men are in homes for the aged. Only one in twenty-five elderly persons lives with his or her children. Herrmann believes that actual physical abuse of elderly people by families and caretakers is rare. In all the years she has worked with older people, she has seen only four or five cases in which older people have been physically abused. “Psychological abuse? That’s different,” Herrmann went on. “That I meet every day. Volunteers tell me, ‘My son has not called me in months and months,’ or, ‘I don’t hear a word from my daughter.’ ”

There are more elderly people alive today than ever before. In the past, older people were a rarity. “We weren’t prepared for so many older people,” said Herrmann. “When my dad was born at the turn of the century, his life expectancy was forty-two. He died at forty-two, very conveniently complying. My grandmother died at sixty-four. I don’t even remember my grandfather, and my other grandparents died long before I was married. Life expectancy for women born in the 1980s is seventy-eight, for men seventy-two. The system is not prepared.

“We have also become a more mobile society. The majority of older people move here from the East Coast and Middle West. They leave their kids behind! So, say they get sick here. What happens to a daughter back East? She can’t leave her job and her family and come out here and stay. I am not saying it’s right, but it’s what’s happening. Adult children are greatly concerned about their parents. I hear from these children almost daily.”

At Crown Point Elementary School in Pacific Beach, where one of the city’s eight senior nutrition sites is located, the principal designed an intergenera-tional program in which youngsters would eat lunch with older people. To help set up this program, Herrmann visited fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders. In each classroom, only three to seven children knew their grandparents. “They see their grandparents maybe once during a summer vacation. How can you revere someone you don’t know?”

Herrmann blames media — television, magazines, newspapers, and the advertising that supports them — for much of what she views as a misunderstanding of older people’s lives. The media, she said, are directed toward youth. “We had a one-day event here. Rally Day, on May 15, recognizing senior citizens. Six thousand seniors attended, and do you know how much coverage we got? Three lines. Before the event happened. And we had sent out a two-page news release!”

Into what had become a rather dolorous conversation, the sound of a bugle, blatting out “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” echoed from the lobby. Marching into Herrmann’s office came a short, trim, mustachioed gentleman, a retired postman from New York City who had moved to San Diego in 1982. He carried a scrapbook of newspaper clippings that detailed his performances at various events over the years. After Herrmann had finished going through the book and had queried the dapper gentleman about his life in San Diego — he feared his rent was going up another twenty-five percent in six months — he asked if he might serenade Herrmann on his bugle with a chorus of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” She agreed, happily, and sat at her desk, smiling, as her visitor flawlessly worked through the tune.

At least half the older people who come to Herrmann’s office to see her have housing problems. Downtown renewal, she said, has not only uprooted great numbers of men and women — she estimates at least 200 rooms have been lost to redevelopment — but it has also created hardships no one had considered. “Take a bachelor,” she suggested, “never married, or divorced or an escapee from his former family. This bachelor has been living in a downtown room. Now visualize this: they put him in an apartment. What about the linens, the china, what about learning to cook, to keep an apartment clean? It is not realistic. You can’t change your patterns of behavior that easily. If you have lived in a downtown hotel for twenty years, you are not prepared to move into an apartment.

“Five years ago,” continued Herrmann, “I wrote an article in which I asserted that in ten years San Diego was going to be a place where only those who are financially able to meet high rents will be able to live. I was wrong. It is now. People are leaving. We have a great exodus. They can’t afford to live here.” Herrman knows of many instances in which older people take “every cent they have and put it down on a condo, or their children raise the money and buy a condo for them, so that at least these older people have a guarantee that their $350 rent will not be $550 in six months.”

A local television station had recently called her, Herrmann noted. “Their representative said, ‘We want to do something upbeat’ and went on to say that they wanted to do a story on housing. I said, ‘Housing is not upbeat, it is a disaster in San Diego. We have a crisis that won’t wait. We have people out in the street, people with rents so high they can’t eat.’ And I said, ‘You want to do an upbeat story about housing?’ The person from the TV station told me, ‘Well, we thought we’d tell about the senior high-rises.’ And I said, ‘Good. But also tell them there are no vacancies, tell them people from out of town are moving in,and the managers have a preferential list of people they allow to move in.’

“I see people who have moved in who have only lived here a year. How do they get in the high-rises? I think they are paying managers under the table. But I can’t prove it.”

Through a recently enacted provision of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Herrmann explained, low-income senior citizens may apply for a certificate that allows them to live anywhere — “any apartment, house, or high-rise. They pay one-third of their income toward rent. The rest is picked up by the feds.” The twenty-five to thirty local senior high-rises, many built in part with federal money, presumably have lengthy waiting lists for occupancy. Herrmann expressed concern that some people get past these waiting lists “if they know the manager or someone with influence.” Herrmann asserted that she knew a number of men and women whose ministers had helped them get into housing that supposedly had long waiting lists. She hypothesized that if a minister “has someone who is a good person in his church, perhaps he will recommend that person [to a manager or landlord].” Herrmann said, “I really believe there is bribery going on, although I cannot prove it.”

One of Herrmann’s friends moved into what she, Herrmann, characterized as “a lovely senior high-rise.” The friend’s wife had died. He had owned a home. But when his wife died, he wanted to sell it. (This is a feeling common among widows and widowers, said Herrmann. “They try to run.”) She pleaded with her friend not to sell, but he did. His daughter came to visit. “In six weeks,” said Herrmann, “he was installed in a place that just a month ago told me they had a five-year waiting list!” Herrmann went to see her friend, and on the way up to his apartment, Herrmann and her husband met the manager. “I said to [the manager], ‘How are the vacancies here?’ and she told me, ‘We have a five-year waiting list.’ I really believe that [her friend’s] daughter, a very energetic and outgoing woman, paid that manager something to let her father in. Why would she let him in when she has a five-year waiting list? If there is a five-year list. I don’t believe that either. It’s a matter of selection. I think it is a personal thing. They look at someone and don’t like them.”

The health status of an older person can be a factor in a landlord or manager deciding to rent to him or her. Because some people do not want anyone with health problems living in their apartments, Herrmann said, many applicants simply lie about the state of their health. She mentioned the plight of an eighty-two-year-old woman who recently received a threat of eviction. Her landlord had told her he was having her evicted because she had hired someone to come in and do her housework. This observation led him to believe she could no longer take care of herself. Herrmann telephoned the landlord and asked him about the situation. After hemming and hawing, he told Herrmann, “This is just our policy.” Herrmann told him, “I have someone clean for me, too, and there’s nothing wrong with me.” After a discussion, the landlord changed his “policy,” telling Herrmann the eighty-two-year-old misunderstood; he was not actually planning to evict her. One of Senior Services’ programs of which Herrmann is proudest is Telephone a Partner (TAP), also called the Telephone Reassurance program. Like most of the programs Herrmann developed, TAP grew out of an unmet need. In the Senior Services’ travel clubs, every member listed his or her closest relative as a contact in case of illness or accident. One of the members, a woman, was living in Luther Towers, a high-rise retirement facility located at Second Avenue and Ash Street. The woman, who was known always to be punctual, did not arrive for the trip for which she had signed up. Her bus waited for her to show up, but she did not. She was found dead four days later, her luggage around her. The woman had listed with the travel club her closest relative, her daughter in Minneapolis. But, said Herrmann, “It is not practical to call clear across the country to find out what happened to someone in San Diego. That situation really bothered me. If the bus leader had called her next-door neighbor, she might be alive today.”

At the time of this incident, Senior Services was sponsoring a telephone tree. As Herrmann described that system, “A called B, B called C, C called D, and so on. However, if C did not call D, everyone past C fell off the limb.” Herrmann decided to place responsibility for making calls on individuals. Each person would telephone a specific number of people, and each person who is to be telephoned would give the names of two of his or her neighbors. The person called would be rung three times in one hour. Should no one answer, neighbors are to be called and asked to see if the person in question is all right. Should the neighbor find no sign of activity, then the police are to be called. More than one hundred people are currently enrolled in this program. “It plugs along for months on end with nothing out of the way happening,” observed Herrmann. “But then, in two days, two emergencies will occur.”

One facet of TAP that particularly pleases Herrmann is that the program is entirely volunteer. Twenty-four volunteers make calls every day of the week, and both the callers and the people who are called are helped by it. One of the callers is blind. Several others can get about only with the help of walkers. Herrmann speaks frequently of her belief in volunteer work as good medicine for both volunteers and those they serve. She is proud of the roster of as many as 300 volunteers upon whom Senior Services can call for help in the various programs.

“I owe everything to my volunteer work through Girl Scouts,” Herrmann says. An active Girl Scout volunteer for thirteen years, Herrmann moved “right up the ranks — cookie chairman, volunteer trainer.” Herrmann and her husband have two children, a forty-one-year-old daughter who now lives in Los Angeles and a thirty-nine-year-old son in La Mesa. After the children entered SDSU, Herrmann enrolled there also, graduating in 1963 with a major in sociology and a minor in recreation.

Herrmann’s husband, a sign painter for the military who is retired now, would like Herrmann to retire so they can travel. “We have a scenario,” she said. “He asks me when I am going to retire, and I say, ‘Never, never.’ ” Herrmann believes her husband retired too soon. “We had such battles about it. He would ask me, ‘Do you want me to work for the rest of my life?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, I do. Yes.’ But he reads for the blind at State College and makes signs for various organizations. But he could do more.”

Herrmann is “not quite ready” to retire. But she admitted that “one of these days” she would like to take up painting full time. When her successor comes along, said Herrmann, she will tell her or him, “The officials of city government don’t really know what they have down here. I would also tell my successor to do something I haven’t done. I’d say to him or to her, ‘Blow your own horn.’ I am satisfied we are doing a good job here. We are not costing the city really anything.... The only thing they realize is money,” said Herrmann, laughing harshly. “If this cost more, they might take a greater interest in it.” In the fiscal year 1984-85, Senior Services received $103,735 from parks and recreation’s $24 million budget. Vern Goodwin, one of eleven appointed members of the Senior Services Advisory Board to San Diego’s city council, observed that the city is probably getting back a half-million dollars in services for its $100,000.

Asked what other advice she would give someone who took her job, Herrmann pondered the question before saying, “If you don’t care about the people you will be serving, don’t take the job. It’s not easy to sit here and hear someone cry because he is being evicted or she is facing death, or is neglected by his or her children, or at odds with himself because he retired too soon and does not know, now, what to do with his life. Then, I would tell my successor, ‘You have to develop an ear. You have to learn to listen. You may not be able to help, but you can try.’ ”

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