October 25, 2021

‘A lot of people out here’

Senior centers are more than just a recreation space

Photo provided by Gary Mead

Members of the Cortland City Senior Club play bingo at the American Legion Post 489 in June. The Cortland seniors have used the American Legion as their meeting space for the past three months, since losing their space at the County Office Building last November.

It had been nearly a year since Kay Harvey saw her friends. She held back the tears, but not the hugs. It’s one of the biggest benefits of a senior center — particularly in rural Scott — but that April reunion following the COVID-19 pandemic was bittersweet.

“Socialization is the biggest thing I worry about,” Harvey said. “That’s the thing about Scott, we have a lot of people out here, and they were stuck at home for so long.”

Now Harvey, once the county-appointed manager of the Scott senior center, is preparing the seniors for a much longer term — the county expects to close many of its centers in the next few weeks. What centers that will remain open will act as satellites to a central core based in Cortland.

Rather than provide the centers, the county will issue grants — $8,500 or $11,500 — for the seniors to run the programs themselves. It’s a move that would save the county $200,000 or more a year in reduced payroll.

Three senior centers — Harford, Preble and Scott — are seeking the grants. The other centers — Homer, Marathon, McGraw, Truxton and Willet — have yet to commit to applying, reports the Area Agency on Aging.

Scott seniors are trying to raise even more money to go beyond what the county would offer, said club President Edgar Fuller and Legislator Kevin Fitch (R-Homer, Preble, Scott).

Harvey has been asked by the seniors to stay and manage the satellite site, but she worries the other centers won’t have the expertise necessary to keep their centers running.

“I even told the Homer seniors that I could be there to help them — honestly I think I would help any of them, because I don’t want any of the centers to close down — and they had a lot of questions on this grant stuff they don’t understand,” Harvey said.

For the past three months, the county has met with seniors and local officials to present the plan and answer questions. But many of the seniors were skeptical.

“When they closed the center because of the virus, I had a feeling that Scott would be history,” Fuller said. “All these meetings each month, I’m not getting hardly anything out of it. All they talk about is the city of Cortland, not the outlying centers. In my books, if they’re looking out for the seniors of the whole county, they shouldn’t be looking for one central center for the whole county.”

MONEY TROUBLES LED TO COST CUTS

By consolidating its centers into one facility, the county Area Agency on Aging can expect to cut spending — something the county has been looking to do for more than a decade. A few months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the county was on the verge of insolvency.

An audit by the state Comptroller’s Office, released in late November 2019, found the Legislature failed to adequately oversee the county’s finances before 2017, the period originally examined, but after further investigation found that this was an issue dating back as far as 2004.

Because of inadequate records and the lack of reports, the state found that county officials did not have reliable financial information on which to base financial decisions.

When shutdowns began in March 2020, the county had the opportunity to take a step back and reevaluate its finances, policies and procedures.

“I would say the thing that really prompted us to take a hard look at our finances was when TransPro consulting came through in 2020 to look at all of the county expenses, and cited us for overspending,” said Liz Haskins, director of the Area Agency on Aging. The analysis was based on a comparison to other counties — some of which were similar to Cortland, but not all.

The TransPro study laid the reasons for the higher spending on number of days of operation, staffing and providing too much food compared to Tioga, Allegany, Genesee, Chenango, Livingston or Madison counties, Haskins said.

However, the Cortland Standard retained an independent demographer from Cornell University in 2017 to find similar counties, and of those, only Allegany and Genesee were close matches. Clinton, Otsego and Oswego were better matches. And comparing those counties to Cortland found that spending was similar.

But this was not the first time the department was criticized for its spending. In 2011, Haskins’ first year as director, the state Comptroller’s Office cited them for spending more money per capita on individuals age 60 andolder that similarly sized counties.

“We have been told twice now in a 10-year period that our spending is too high,” Haskins said. “So when the Cortland City Senior Center shut down, Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-Cortland) created an ad hoc committee to find other options.”

THE NEW PLAN

In April, the advisory committee presented several models of how senior centers might function once they reopen — reducing costs while maintaining at least some services.

The chosen hub-satellite model will allow outlying centers to run independently while the Cortland center is open five days a week for a few hours with Area Agency on Aging staff and volunteers to provide meals and services, Haskins said.

However, many seniors are not interest in planning their visit to the Cortland center around a bus schedule, Fitch said. Winter weather could be the final push to stay home rather than drive.

Harvey knew seniors who werewilling to drive a few miles in the snow to visit their center for a hot meal, but driving to the city would be too far.

For the outlying centers that stay open as satellites, the seniors will have space, but they’ll face challenges organizing and running services.

“I think it’s going to work if everybody at the meetings lives up to what they say, then we’re going to have a nice club,” said Fuller, the Scott club president. “Are they going to live up to what they say? It’s all going to be volunteers — a staff for the kitchen, a clean up committee — so I don’t want to put the whole burden on two or three people.”

The county Legislature will vote Thursday on the central hub’s location and the transportation assistance to get seniors to Cortland from outlying areas. The county is considering leasing a 2,200-square-foot suite in the Crescent Commons building at 165 Main St.

The Cortland City Senior Club’s members were pushed out of the County Office Building last November, and have been playing games and hosting meetings in the American Legion and the St. Charles Hotel.

“It is easily accessible, roomy, well-lit and offers us the ability to increase our activity offering to seniors,” said Cortland Senior Council President Gary Mead. “Should seniors from other centers wish to join us, they are welcome. We are an inclusive group.”

However, Fitch noted: “What would the county do, what would the Area Agency on Aging do, if everyone just came here (to the Cortland site)? You couldn’t fit all those people. So it’s like, watch what you’re wishing for, because they could all show up. But I know that the town of Scott’s people would sooner say ‘No, we’re just not going to have a center’ if that was the case.”

BENEFITS OF SENIOR CENTERS

The life span of the average American is eight years longer today than 50 years ago. Older adults work longer, are more active and dedicated to continued learning and community engagement, the Area Agency on Aging reports.

Senior centers aren’t just the place for shuffleboard, billiards and bingo. They can provide a routine blood pressure check and other health screenings. For many, it may be the only nutritious meal of the day.

That low-level screening, networking and nutrition can reducethe need for more intensive care and support, reports the Area Agency on Aging.

“We’re taking a greater focus on healthy aging,” Haskins said. “There’s socialization and recreation benefits, but also physical and emotional support.”

Over the years, Harvey has kept tabs on seniors’ schedules — giving them a call when she hasn’t seen them on days they typically visit the center.

“There’s one woman, we talk once or twice a week because she has a major depression problem,” Harvey said. “She’ll tell me that she sits at home, within the same four walls every day, and that depression kicks in more and more because she’s not out, not visiting people.” For another woman, the senior center may have been her salvation.

“I knew a lady who first started going to the center with her husband, and when he died the center was what kept her going,” Harvey said. “She was at that center every day. I get worried that we (the managers) are the only ones who see what happens, and if the senior centers are gone, who will make that check-in call?”