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Attendance at Senior Centers Slowly Rebounds as Older New Yorkers Seek Food and Friends

COVID shut down dozens of centers for older New Yorkers, but they are starting to reopen. Providers and patrons testified to the crucial role of these gathering places.

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In tap shoes, Arden Heights resident Joel Brooks told a DFTA hearing about his use of the JCC of Staten Island senior center for everything from tap dance to ukulele, Oct. 20, 2022.

Reuven Blau/THE CITY

Joel Brooks’ shoes clanked on the floor as he walked up last week to address a small crowd gathered to address the city’s annual plan for New York City’s oldest residents.  

Brooks explained to approximately 50 people, including two top officials from the city’s Departing for the Aging, that after the meeting he was going to a tap dance class right after the hearing in the same facility, JCC of Staten Island’s Bernikow Older Adult Center.

He testified that it’s just one of the classes he has attended at the center in Mid-Island since the facility reopened in June 2021 after it closed at the onset of the COVID pandemic in March 2020.  

The 78-year-old retired school teacher also takes lessons in how to play the ukulele and guitar and a course about Broadway plays. Additionally, he personally teaches a songwriting class. 

“Saturday I’m exhausted, but it’s an exhilarating exhaustion,” Brooks said at the hearing to discuss the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) Annual Plan, covering April 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023. 

At stake is how Mayor Eric Adams’ administration intends to fund and operate the city’s 308 older adult centers, food delivery programs, and free car rides for medical appointments and other essential needs for the city’s aging population. 

The department held its first in-person hearings since the start of the COVID outbreak, one in each borough, where the seniors and other members of the public were invited to testify about the agency’s annual plan. 

DFTA is required to submit the document to the state’s Office for the Aging, which folds it into its own plan, which is later submitted to the federal government. 

The gatherings are one the first opportunities seniors and service providers have had to comment on the Adams administration’s vision for how to care for the city’s rapidly expanding older adult population, with one in five New Yorkers expected to be 60 and older by 2040. 

Many seniors have come back to the older adult centers after they were fully reopened on March 21 — but they are still far from pre-pandemic levels.

James Capers gets ready to play bingo at the Bay Ridge Center on Monday.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Average daily older adult center participation has dropped from 29,201 in the year that ended June 2018, to 18,967 in the year through June 2022, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.  

DFTA projects that figure will rise to 26,342 next fiscal year, the report said. 

The centers provide group meals as well as a variety of classes and activities where seniors can socialize. They have long been viewed as a lifeline for older New Yorkers who frequently find themselves living alone and isolated.  

In Staten Island, the Center for Life Long Development “gives us so much,” Brooks testified. “It extends lives. It enriches lives. And it saves lives. There’s no question about it.”

The department’s overall $543 million budget for fiscal year 2023 is approximately 11% more than the previous year, according to city records. Some of the increase reflects expansion in the number of centers, from 249 for fiscal 2022 to 308 at the start of the year.

The biggest chunk of money — $249 million — is earmarked for meals at senior centers and home-delivered food, budget records show. The department has over 400 direct service contracts primarily with nonprofit groups including different branches of Meals on Wheels. 

Nonprofit organizations that service seniors say that the job has become more difficult over the last few years as the population increases and their needs become more complex. 

“As our adult population grows we need to recognize that those contracts have to grow,” testified Nikki Odlivak, president and CEO of Community Agency for Senior Citizens in Staten Island. 

She also urged DFTA officials to make it easier for nonprofits to pay their staff and to apply to city programs. 

“The city keeps promising, but the red tape gets more and more,” she said. “We need to fix that. Our line staff has enough difficulty dealing with complex cases. Make things easier for us so we can do the services that we want to do.”

After her testimony, Erkan Solak, the department’s chief contracting officer, responded, “I’m on your side.” 

Renaming, Revamping

Big changes to senior centers began at the end of the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio. They are being renamed older adult centers as part of the new contracts this January.

Shortly before leaving office last year, de Blasio and DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, who has remained in place, began to revamp how the senior centers operate. 

Operators of those facilities at the time were furious about what they described as a rushed process in the last months of the de Blasio administration. They had to suddenly reopen centers for in-person programming while also finishing the tedious process of compiling detailed responses to DFTA’s request for proposals for the operation of senior centers as part of the five-year Community Care Plan for older New Yorkers.

Under the initiative, senior centers are required to boost programming, increase transportation options for areas with minimal public transit, and market their services “to attract under-represented groups and more members and participants overall.” 

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