For Nellie Jeffrey, 86, Prince George's Plaza shopping mall is the social center of her life. She goes there nearly every day, occasionally to shop, but mostly to have dinner and talk with friends.
It helps her recapture, she says, the cherished atmosphere of the town square in her little hometown of Mound Valley, Kan., where she would go shopping on sunny Saturday afternoons, meet friends and end the day with a picnic lunch.
For Nestor Drayer and his wife, Helen, both 77, who enjoy eating out frequently and chatting with friends, Fairfax County's Fair Oaks Mall is a perfect spot for a light lunch and a few hours of relaxation in pleasant, air-conditioned surroundings several times a week.
For Irene Ancell, 80, of Beltsville, Prince George's Plaza is the place to go when "I get tired of being by myself. I catch a bus and come to the shopping mall just to be with other people. I walk until I get tired, then I eat, I sit for a while, then I walk some more."
She, Jeffery and the Drayers are typical of many older people in the Washington area who have found their favorite shopping mall can be their neighborhood or indoor village green, a place where they can be with friends in an unhurried, attractice environment, free of crime and protected from bad weather.
"The malls provide an opportunity for older people to have a valuable interchange with younger generations," said Dr. Gene Cohen, a psychiatrist and chief of the Center for Studies of the Mental Health of the Aged at the National Institutes of Health. "The feedback that senior citizens get from people at the shopping malls helps the older people to stay socially and intellectually in tune with society."
That type of feedback was evident the other day when Jeffrey drove a friend, Dorothy Preston, 88, to Prince George's Plaza for dinner at the Hot Shoppes cafeteria, where the two Hyattsville women received a "senior citizens" discount on their meal. After dinner, they strolled to a group of hardwood benches set among semi-tropical grennery in the center of the mall. Moments later, Margaret Pherigo, 76, of Beltsville, came along to ask jokingly, "What kind of mischief are you girls up to today?"
Then there was a joyful round of greetings and handshaking among friends who said they had not seen each other for several months.
Soon, six other older women had taken nearby benches in the small area that was rapidly taking on the flavor of a county family's living room after dinner. The air was abuzz with lively conversations set to a background of soft music piped through speakers in the ceiling.
"The only complaint I have is that the benches here don't have cushions and they didn't install rocking chairs," Pherigo, a retired clerk typist, told one gathering of women.
"A lot of youngsters don't believe older people can drive," Jeffrey, who once was a federally employed bookkeeper, said as several other women listened. "I've been driving for more than 65 years. I've driven everything from a Model T Ford to a Jeep. I'll keep on driving as long as I can sit behind the wheel."
While the woman talked, a small boy strayed from his mother and walked toward them as Preston and Jeffrey reached out to him.He quickly ran to his mother took his hand and went about her shopping. It was a pleasant scene, the kind the two women say they like and see often at the mall. p
Olga Allison, 69, of Beltsville, said she often comes to the mall in Hyattsville to get walking exercise, a regimen that consists of two or three laps around the full length of the mall during a 30-minute period. After that, said Allison, a retired accountant, she relaxes with friends for a few minutes, then has dinner. She also comes from special occasions, such as a recent dinner at Bob's Big Boy to celebrate Ancell's 80th birthday.
Use of the plaza as a walking track is not uncommon, according to mall manager Elliot B. Riley, who said that a group of older men come to the mall to exercise several times a week. After an 8 a.m. breakfast, the men spend several hours woaking, with intmittent rests, Riley said.
Noting that many patrons of the mall walk in from apartment complexes along the fringes of the shopping center's parking lot, Riley said, "People can come here and feel they belong and that this is part of their neighborhood."
The merchants at Landover Mall, like the businessmen at Prince George's Plaza, welcome the bus loads of senior citizens who pour in each week. Dale Wright, marketing director of the Landover Mall Merchants Association, said the 130 merchants at Landover are glad to see the older people -- whether they are spending money or simple relaxing beneath the mall's indoor trees.
Wright said they "spend money for some shopping and snacks and our merchants appreciate the patronage."
Out at Fair Oaks Mall, Harry Hanson, 69, of Chantilly, sat on one of the upholstered benches talking with a friend while his wife, Ruth, wandered to another section of the shopping mall. Aside from come occasional shopping, their frequent visits to the mall are simply a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, Hanson said.
"We live about a mile away, so we come in several times a week to just sit and talk and relax," said Hanson, a retired West Virginia coal miner and a former custodian.
The Drayers, who live in Oakton, prefer to visit a number of shopping centers around the beltway, where "we bump into a lot of our friends . . .," said Nestor Drayer, a retired printshop worker. "This gives us a little time out of the house. You can't watch television all day. And I never want to retire to a rocking chair."