Reframing Aging: San Franciscan Susie Tyner

Susie Tyner practices on the steel drum at the Senior Center at 1753 Carroll Ave. in Bayview Hunters Point, where she was the longtime program director and still volunteers.

by Judy Goddess

If you live in San Francisco, you’ve probably seen her smiling face on billboards, the side of buildings, the back of buses, transit stations, and lining Van Ness and other major thoroughfares. Bayview resident Susie Tyner is one of five seniors who exemplify a new generation of older adults: accepting of the inevitable aging process but making a conscious decision to live full lives. 

“There’s a misperception,” said Mayor London Breed, “that our City’s reputation for innovation and vibrancy comes only from a growing number of young people. In fact, older adults are the fastest growing age group in San Francisco. Their experience and energy are assets that we should draw on, not minimize. When we rely on negative stereotypes about older people, we miss out on the job, intelligence and other strengths that older San Franciscans contribute to our workplaces and communities.” 

The five seniors gracing the posters remind us that older is not lesser, that the qualities that make us human – passion, leadership, creativity, courage, intelligence, generosity – never get old. The posters are the most visible part of a year-long movement by the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services and senior agencies to “Reframe Aging” by dispelling the destructive myths of aging and highlighting the services available to support wellbeing in later life.

“Some of these seniors are in their 80s and 90s. If you could just see them dance, it would blow your mind. Everybody gets down.” 

Tyner retired two years ago from the Dr. George W. Davis Senior Center, where she had been the program director. Her job involved doing a bit of everything: planning daily activities, leading exercise groups, producing and marketing the Monday Night Jam, organizing trips to “every continent except Antarctica,” outreach for Black Cuisine week, and anything else that came her way. She loved it, she said, sharing a Toni Morrison quote that sums up her take on life, “If you’re always practicing being normal, you never know how amazing you can be.” 

Retirement for Tyner meant foregoing a salary, but not the activities she loves. She still leads a twice-weekly exercise class at the George Davis Center and at I.T. Bookman in Oceanview. “I call the Monday Night Jam at Dr. Davis the Summer Jam; it’s been going for 10 years. 

Last year, Felisia Thibodeaux asked me to bring it to Bookman; the Bookman Jam we call the Winter Jam. We bring in groups for 10 weeks at each site. Some of these seniors are in their 80s and 90s. If you could just see them dance, it would blow your mind. Everybody gets down.” 

Tyner hasn’t stopped leading tours either. Last year, Tyner organized two trips: one to the Netherlands, and a Soul Train Tour last winter. This year they’re going to Montreal in June and staying for the beginning of the Montreal Jazz Fest. 

But it’s music that keeps Tyner going. There was always music in her home: Dad played the guitar and mom sang her native Filipino songs. But it’s the steel drum that gets Tyner moving now. 

After a trip to the Caribbean, where she watched steel drum bands perform, Tyner began dreaming of bringing that music to her neighborhood. “The drums were used to calm communities that were plagued by violence. I wanted to bring it to the Bayview, which was having its own problems of gun violence.” 

This is the photo that’s made Susie Tyner a familiar face throughout San Francisco. Join her Winter Jam exercise class at I.T. Bookman, 446 

It took 18 years of planning and an outside grant before the Center was able to purchase handmade drums and hire an instructor. Today, Tyner and nine other members of the community meet weekly to practice old favorites and learn new music. 

“There are 10 of us in the band. You don’t need to read music; you just need to know where to strike. We feel really good about ourselves when we’re playing. We’ll perform during Black Cuisine week, and others are asking us too.” 

And Tyner has other plans.  “I’m looking at writing a sort of musical documentary on Billie Holiday. I wrote an earlier one on Bessie Smith that was produced at the Bayview Opera House on Third Street. I might do the same for the Billie Holiday piece.”

When I asked Tyner how she feels about being one of the faces of healthy aging, she laughed. “The other day, I pulled up behind a bus in Ocean Avenue and my eyes were staring down at me. It gave me a shock. I’ve seen my eyes at the LaSalle bus shelter, on postcards, and on banners on Van Ness. It’s been getting me a lot of interest lately.” 

Tyner’s activities are open to the community. For more information, including information about the Monday Night Jams, contact Susie Tyner at 415-695-9271.

For more information on Reframing Aging, visit EndAgeism.com, the campaign’s Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn pages.  

Judy Goddess is a reporter with sfseniorbeat.com. You can contact her at 415-759-1994 or judygoddess@gmail.com.