This New York Times article about budget cuts in New York State affecting senior community centers struck a nerve with me. In a good way. I am a strong advocate for promoting quality of life even into old age, especially into old age, and I think we youngsters forget just how important these community spaces can be for old folks.
In these places seniors can get a cheap meal, planned activities like games or fitness classes (we’re talking more Tai Chi than Tai Bo) but also companionship, and opportunities to do new things and learn. They also get experiences they never would have gotten to do otherwise; they realize they love to dance, or simply fall in love again.
However, with states and cities as cash strapped as they are, these places are in jeopardy of closing.
Last year, [New York] state and city budget cuts threatened 75 of the centers… and 29 were ultimately closed. The centers are intended to serve New Yorkers over age 60. This January, the dance began again: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed redirecting $25 million from the centers to child welfare; that, said the city’s Department for the Aging, would mean closing about a third of its centers; on March 15, the centers got a reprieve, with the Assembly and the State Senate voting to restore the money.
In a country where we are already isolating generations away from each other, it seems all the more important to at least offer a place for this demographic of people to meet and have some kind of community.
My grandparents belonged to a retirement home that practically forced them to go out and socialize with each other, be involved in community efforts, and participate in outreach to youth. I was thrilled to see new activities and challenges thrust upon my grandparents; learning new skills and taking on new responsibilities at 80 plus was revitalizing for them. However, that retirement home also ate up a lot of money, money that most folks don’t have, and soon-to-be-old folks are in worse shape as far as savings go due to the economy.
Some people may argue that it’s not worth investing in a demographic that isn’t giving back to our society. Besides the argument that they already GAVE to our society for 50 or more years, I’d argue that many of them could give back if we gave them the opportunity. There are lots of volunteer and time-bank programs where retired folks can donate their skills, from fixing leaky faucets to knitting to mentoring.
One of the programs my grandfather was in was a mentor for “troubled kids” as he’d call them who were bussed into the retirement home every other week or so to sit for an hour to talk to an old person. It was community service that a lot of them probably didn’t like the idea of at first, and to their friends they probably didn’t get all that excited about it. But when you actually saw the kids interact with the older folks, these kids opened up and really enjoyed their time with him. This was the first time in a long time that a lot of these kids got to say what was on their minds, and were really listened to. My grandfather also just happened to be a guidance counselor for many, many years, so for him this was also a treat to brush up on his old guidance counseling skills and feel like he was helping kids along the path “to the straight and narrow.” But even without that training, the older mentors felt like they were contributing to society, and so did the kids, as well as both getting something in return.
So before we look to cutting budgets on senior community centers, I argue we should look at these as possible hubs for other community activities, or community focal points. Just like lots of groups rent out the church basement for meetings or choir rehearsals, city planners should be looking at these spaces as community centers, not just senior centers. These centers offer a chance for a human being, of any age, to feel like a party of a community again, to feel human.