Seven years ago, when a friend suggested that Delores A. Davis apply for a University of Michigan program in gerontology, Davis did what she does so effortlessly.
She threw back her head and laughed.
"I said, 'Isn't that something to do with old people?'" chuckled Davis. "I said, 'There's nothing you can do when you get old. You just get old and die."
Tempted, however, by the prospect of a full scholarship, the 39-year-old undergraduate student decided to talk to some people in the field. She began with the dean of Michigan's gerontology department and ended with Hobart Jackson, a guest lecturer on the aged at Wayne State University.
After hearing Jackson speak, an impressed Davis asked him for a recommendation to the Michigan gerontology program. He interviewed her, decided her objectives were sincere and gave her the recommendation.
Unknown to her at the time, Jackson was organizing the National Center on Black Aged (NCBA) to be headquartered in Washington. The Detroit native went on to earn a doctorate in education, with a specialization in gerontology, in 1974. Three years ago she became director of the NCBA.
The research and advocacy center was established in 1973 as a national lobby group for the black aged. With chapters scattered throughout the United States, the NCBA is committed to publicizing the problems of elderly blacks.
Davis speaks authoritatively about the housing, health, income and social problems that she says prematurely age millions of older Americans. She rails against government policies that she said often run counter to the needs of the elderly.
She points with pride to some recent highlights of NCBA work:
The National Caucus on Black Aged and NCBA honored 17 black senior citizens at a White House luncheon hosted by First Lady Rosalynn Carter this year. Three Washingtonians were among the citizens lauded for their contributions to improving American life.
The center is directing the construction of a model, 175-unit senior citizens complex on 14th and Girard streets NW. The $7.9 million complex, which will include a communal dining room, a library, arts and crafts rooms and health facilities, is being jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the D.C. housing department.
A $1.3 million NCBA Rural Employment Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, supports 300 elderly part-time workers in five southern states.
The NCBA also has established liasons with several local churches to determine the needs of elderly people in the District and to promote NCBA programs.
Davis contends that America is a country of old people who do not have the dignity and quality of life that other nations afford its elder citizens.
According to 1970 U.S. census figures, slightly more than 10 percent of the U.S. population -- 26 million people -- is aged 65 or older, she noted. The United Nations defines an "aged" country as having more than 7 percent of its population concentrated in the older ages.
About 1.8 million elderly U.S. residents are black, continued Davis, who leans heavily on census statistics to describe the problems of the elderly. D.C. leads the 50 states with the highest proportion (45 percent) of its black population made up of elderly people, she said. Mississippi is second.
To help improve the quality of life for these citizens, she said more black people are needed in policy making positions and careers that affect the lives of the elderly. Already she has convinced her husband, a retired Army major, to get a degree in gerontology, she said. Now she's trying to coax her two children into the field.