Under Bloomberg's grim plan to close at least 50 senior centers by July 1, thousands of seniors will not have a place to eat Thanksgiving this year.
Some of my older neighbors, many of whom live alone, spent last Thanksgiving at our local senior center, where they can find a hot, nutritious meal and perhaps more importantly, company. While the city spared this center, it could still lose a third of its funding. A glance at their monthly calendar of activities, which includes movies, blood pressure screenings, AARP tax assistance, computer and tai-chi classes, gives you a hint of the lifeline centers like these offer to older New Yorkers.
The city has already announced the 50 senior centers slated to close, and an additional 25 could join the list of shuttered centers if Albany doesn't come through with funding. While the mayor blamed the cuts on "Albany's irresponsibility," dismantling infrastructure that has served the city's older adults for more than half a century is rash and irresponsible, especially given the growing numbers of older New Yorkers.
Two demographic trends--aging baby boomers (who will start turning 65 next year), and increasing longevity--will result in a grayer New York. Instead of preparing for this demographic reality, we now risk severing the very services that have allowed older people to live longer while remaining in their homes and communities, no easy feat when you consider that elderly New Yorkers are more likely to be poor, disabled, and to live alone, than their counterparts in the rest of the country.
Manhattan will lose the most centers, 16 total, with Harlem and the Lower East Side hit hardest. This comes at a time when city planning demographers have projected that Manhattan's population of people 65 and older will increase 58%, making up roughly 16% of the borough's population, by 2030. That's up from 12% in 2000. Brooklyn stands to lose another 11 centers, Queens 10, Bronx 9, and Staten Island 4.
Perhaps more distressing, these closings will disproportionately effect our city's poorest elders, who are the most vulnerable to social isolation. A recent study of city senior centers conducted by the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City found that your typical senior center regular is a woman, 70 years or older, widowed or living alone, with limited education and income. The makeup of senior center attendees is increasingly diverse and includes many first-generation immigrants and bilingual seniors who also face the threat of cultural and linguistic isolation. The United Neighborhood Houses of New York, a membership organization of New York City settlement houses and community centers, identified 12 community districts where seniors faced the highest risk of social isolation, based on the number of older people living alone and poverty levels. Central, East, and West Harlem ranked in the top three and will now lose 13 senior centers altogether.
Last month in The New York Times, the Commissioner of New York City's Department for the Aging (DFTA), Lilliam Barrios-Paoli tried to soften the devastation of these cuts, saying of the roughly 30,000 New Yorkers who visit senior centers each day, "I don't want to minimize the need, but they are mobile, and they have more of a support network." Yet, DFTA's own 2001 report on senior center use found that over 50% of people who used city senior centers went every day, and another 29% went 3-4 times a week, revealing the extent to which people rely on these institutions as their support network. And while the city took pity on homebound seniors and decided not to cut Meals on Wheels deliveries, the loss of these centers will end up punishing their slightly more able-bodied counterparts, who also face higher rates of depression, suicide, and social isolation due to their age. The elderly also tend to fall through the cracks when disaster strikes, as happened during the 1995 Chicago heat wave and Hurricane Katrina, where the old made up a disproportionate number of the dead. The social support many have now will largely evaporate when the centers close. What then?
Certainly, the closings will save the city money during uncertain economic times. But at what cost? When you consider the money senior centers save through preventative services, like nutrition and exercise programs that help reduce chronic illness and falls, for example, the $100,000 cost per year to operate one center seems like a bargain. Somehow we can find thirty million dollars for projects like the new 34th street pedestrian plaza, yet we can't preserve core city services that serve the most vulnerable New Yorkers. What does this say about the city's priorities?