Senior Center caught in budget crunch

Saturday, February 7, 2009
By Cary Shuman
"I do love this place. I think everyone feels that they’d miss the warmth of a library. It’s such a small town, with only so many public buildings,' said Seal Harbor resident Ruth Porter.

"I do love this place. I think everyone feels that they’d miss the warmth of a library. It’s such a small town, with only so many public buildings,' said Seal Harbor resident Ruth Porter.

Senior Center regular Peter Ventresca, 79, remembers the days following the death of his wife, Ann, two years ago this month. He was lonely, in pain, and considering terrible thoughts.

He moved in with his sister and her husband on Fairview Street, but still, he said, “I was in a bad state.” A native of Italy who at one time taught karate classes in Boston, Ventresca’s whole life was entwined with his wife’s. He wasn’t sure what to do with himself.

About nine months ago, he discovered the Senior Center, and he made friends, spending about six hours a day in the front room, listening to the radio, and talking to anyone who wants to chat. While he doesn’t participate in the exercise classes or the card games, he actually serves a higher purpose: to spot the sad who need some direction.

“You learn to spot things in people,” said Ventresca. He recalled a man of the cloth sitting on the couch, apparently depressed. “He opened up to me, said he had lost his missus, and his family never got in touch with him. He was talking about committing suicide,” Ventresca said.

Ventresca passed this along to Senior Center Director Nancy Williams, who in turn called his family to let them know how the man was feeling. “They came to his house and grabbed him,” said Ventresca. “No more suicide. I felt so good. I just want to help people.”

And some help themselves, he observed.

“A lot of people who come here go to an exercise class and come out with a big smile on their face,” said
Ventresca. “If they didn’t have this, I don’t think they’d have anything. People live alone, they die. Loneliness
is a killer.”

He should know. “If I didn’t have the Senior Center, I think I would’ve been gone a long time ago. I’d have nothing to live for.”

Many people talk about “the good old days,” but Williams recalled as a young girl seeing seniors on the benches
at Crest Park. They had nowhere to go back then. There weren’t senior services back then.

There are 3,700 seniors in a town of 17,000, a pretty substantial percentage. On Tuesday morning, the
phones were ringing off the hook, the rooms were packed with seniors taking classes. “It was a crazy morning,”
said Williams.

If there’s no Senior Center, where will they go? Williams has overheard callous comments about how the seniors can just go into some basement to spend their final days, or hope that family comes through.

“This is about dignity,” said Williams. “This place isn’t about Bingo games. The suicide rate among seniors has grown. Let’s face it; this is a group of people who are isolated. They don’t have family, their loved ones died, their friends have died.”

She recalled a 62-year-old woman who called up, frightened and alone. She had a doctor’s appointment for
her cancer diagnosis, and she was terrified to go alone. Williams set her up with a volunteer to accompany her to the appointment.

“She had a lifeline,” said Williams. “Our seniors know we are here for them.”

Maybe she could coordinate services from a phone in Town Hall, or in a basement somewhere. “I don’t necessarily want to pay more money in taxes, but $30 or so more a month to keep services, I can do that. We have so many good people in this town who go beyond their job description,” she said.

The town will decide next week, and if it votes to close the Senior Center down, it will be the first in the state to do so.

“I’ve already cut my maintenance and supply line items. I could cut a position,” she said. “They’re talking about $511,000, so they’re not looking for little amounts. My whole budget is $157,000, with $35,000 toward the senior lunch program.”

Close the senior center, and you’re not getting rid of just a handful of paid workers and a few senior exercise
classes. There’s also 47 volunteers, there’s the meals on wheels program that provides sometimes the sole nutritious meal to a shut-in. There’s the therapy, the exercise, the social interaction, the elder abuse and elderat-
risk advocates, all paid for through the annual grants for which Williams applies. The Senior Center keeps
seniors vibrant so they can avoid the nursing home, or the daycare center, or placing a burden on their children
who have their own children to take care of, said Williams.

“Anyone who loves their parents wouldn’t want to see them fall by the wayside,” said Williams. “The No. 1 killer of the elderly is loneliness. We have people who want to stay in their homes. They want to stay in Winthrop.”

“They won’t have a library to go to,” said Williams. “Where will they go to get some help? They’ll call the fire department, the police department, they’ll go to Town Hall, and I don’t think they’ll know where to refer them to for services.”

Wait — there’s always the park bench.

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