Elsie Koff, National Problem Solver

By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid


Elsie Koff

Elsie Koff

Americans are living a lot longer these days.  For example, meet Elsie Koff, a Mission Viejo resident, who’s 91, extremely active, and definitely not living in the past. “I drive, I use a computer, and I have a cell phone,” she told me. Longevity runs in Elsie’s family.  Her sister lived to be 99, and her dad passed away at 101. “He used to say, ‘I still got all my marbles,’ and he did,” Elsie said.

After an in-person interview, I asked if I could phone her with any follow-up questions.

“Sure, if you can catch me at home,” she said.  “I’m pretty busy.”  And sure enough, both times I called her, I got her answering machine and listened to a voice that sounded like it was years away from turning 91. Busy includes lots of get-togethers with friends for mah-jongg and various card games, going to gym classes, and, once a week, volunteering at Age Well’s Adult Day Services on El Toro Road in Laguna Woods.

Anywhere from 45 to 70 people come to the center each week day.  About 40% have Alzheimers or similar disorders, while others are quite alert but have limitations that prevent them from being alone all day. They all have a plan of care, nutrition to meet their particular needs, and a wide range of activities.  There are two registered nurses there each day, one fulltime and one part time. Adult Day Services not only serves the seniors but helps to provide much needed respite for caregivers — spouses, relatives and others.

Each Friday Elsie helps prepare and serve lunches to the people who come to the center.  “She makes salads, she fixes meals for those on special diets, she serves, she cleans up — she does anything that’s asked of her,” said Nutritional Manager Diane Palermo.

“I’m just a general flunky,” Elsie told me.

Diane has a far different view. “She’s a remarkable inspiration. She just continues to give.”

Elsie became intimately acquainted with food preparation at an early age.  She was the youngest in the family, and at age thirteen, with both parents working, it fell to her to cook dinner every day for her parents, herself, and her two siblings.  She grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated from Manual Arts High School.  In 1947 she married Milton Koff, a World War II veteran who had served with Merrill’s Marauders in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. She and her husband, who died a few years ago at age 87, had a retail business in Hawthorne.

A few years ago Elsie had to stop volunteering because of a medical problem.  Eventually she called Diane and asked if it would be okay if she came back. “Okay? You bet it would — we’ve missed you!” Diane told her.  “I give her a big hug every day she comes, and she told me, ‘That’s why I come here — for the hugs.’”

Elsie’s story is one piece of a much larger mosaic. At the same time she is making salads and serving lunches, she is doing her part to help solve a serious national problem. As I said at the outset, Americans are living a lot longer these days, but not all of them have the physical stamina and mental acuity of Elsie Koff — including those who come to Adult  Day Services.

Other countries provide forms of elder care that, in the words of the late Dr. Robert Butler, “make it possible for people to have dignified care right up to the end of life.” But America doesn’t have sufficient systems or facilities to care for all the legions of older people who can no longer care for themselves. “We’re not there yet,” Dr. Butler said in a PBS interview.

Three years ago at the World Science Festival in New York, Dr. Butler, along with other researchers, was on a panel entitled “90 Is the New 50.” Dr. Butler was skeptical of the concept.  He later told author Susan Jacoby, “The trouble with expecting 90 to become the new 50 is it can stop rational discussion.” What we ought to be concentrating on, he suggested, is how to make 90 a better 90.

Which is pretty much is what Elsie and all the hundreds of other Age Well volunteers are doing — in Elsie’s case, one lunch at a time.  Every hour she and the other volunteers are on the job, they are expanding Age Well’s ability to provide care, and improve the quality of life for clients.

It is something Elsie is most happy to do. “I’m glad that as old as I am, I can still give back,” she told me.  “I feel fortunate to be on this side.”

Help the seniors that Age Well serves. To donate funds, volunteer or become a community partner, go to

 Thank you!

Tags: , ,

One Response to “Elsie Koff, National Problem Solver”

  1. admin says:

    A great inspirational story. We should all strive to help wherever we can!