A homebound senior citizen who loses a spouse can struggle with the ensuing loneliness.
Local senior centers have a mission to best prepare those they serve for an active future by giving them a place to go outside their home. And the people who run the centers say they continue to add programs to fit a growing and diverse demand.
The senior center program in Atlantic County continues to expand as it mirrors an increasing senior citizen population in South Jersey, many of whom are living longer and often alone. The centers fill a need for socialization.
“The health is very important. The socialization is very important,” said Cindy Chadwick, county supervisor of senior centers. She added that people who lose their spouses need to get out of their homes.
“We have to get them out and have fun so they don’t just stay at home,” she said.
September is National Senior Center Month, and the Atlantic County Division of Intergenerational Services is offering new programs to help the aging population.
The Atlantic County program started in 1985 and operates nine centers in Atlantic City, which has two, Brigantine, Buena, Egg Harbor City, Egg Harbor Township, Hammonton, Northfield and Ventnor for active, independent seniors ages 60 and older. The facilities are open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, except for Egg Harbor City’s, which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Other towns, such as Galloway Township, Margate and Somers Point, also run some type of program for seniors through their municipal offices.
Despite a limited budget, the county hopes to provide enough activities to entertain and provide the seniors what they need.
Chadwick said they offer exercise classes geared to helping seniors with balance so they can prevent falling and build muscle around bones so they are less likely to have breaks. For seniors living alone, preventing falls is especially vital, she said.
“It’s very important. Many seniors are homebound, but we try to get seniors who live in their homes to age in their homes so they can stay in their homes and be an active part of the community,” she said.
Chadwick said many seniors are on fixed budgets and cannot afford these programs on their own. But coming to the center and being with other people encourages them to be more active and exercise, which could prevent illnesses or depression from staying at home and watching television.
The centers also provide a meal every day, Chadwick said. The facilities used to be referred to as nutrition centers, but Chadwick said she prefers highlighting their other aspects, as well.
“It’s not just the meal,” she said. “It’s the socialization and activities.”
The county typically provides 400 to 450 meals a day, Chadwick said.
In Vineland, the senior center provides activities and will begin to serve meals next month, said Assistant Director Emily Balinkie, who hopes that will attract more people. She said seniors who visit usually ask for more than the usual coffee and doughnuts.
“It’s important to get them out of their house and meet people,” she said. “I think it helps them a lot.”
Donna Groome, executive director of the Cape May County Department of Aging and Disability Services, said the county operates four senior centers in Lower Township, North Wildwood, Ocean City and Upper Township, which is currently closed due to renovations. The county also has a nutrition center at the Crest Haven Complex in Cape May Court House that also provides activities for seniors. They service about 825 clients a year, she said.
“It’s critical,” she said of the program. “They get a good meal and a lot of socialization they wouldn’t get in other avenues. It’s also a great place to go where people can check in on them, too. They can tell them if they see any problems going on.”
The Atlantic County program receives about $330,000 a year in federal funding that provides for meals and staff at the centers. The county also provides transportation to the seniors.
Carolyn Maltz, manager of the Egg Harbor Township center, said grants have also run out, but they offer activities such as games, bookmobiles, bingo, exercising, dance, art and holiday parties.
The centers will have presentations from organizations on topics such as Medicare, medications and the lottery. The county is also starting a new program this month through the South Jersey Traffic Safety Alliance that provides a free 12-point check of how well a resident’s vehicle personally fits them.
The Egg Harbor Township center, located at the township’s Community Center on English Creek Avenue, has one of the largest turnouts, as about 100 seniors a day from across the county attend, Maltz said.
The senior centers help seniors with services they need, Maltz said, such as helping apply for food stamps or assisted living or working with the clerk’s office to obtain identification cards.
Many seniors visit the center with their spouses, but others said they live alone and use the center to stay active.
Jeannette Haskins, 83, visits the center early every day to help set up and prepare food. The township resident has been going to the facility for 14 years and acts as the treasurer, collecting the $1 donations required for the meal.
“I enjoy working,” she said. “This allows me to have something important to do.”
The seniors also help one another.
Literacy Volunteers in Pleasantville went to the center two years ago to help teach English as a second language for the large Hispanic and Asian population.
Egg Harbor Township resident Liwanag Dimacale, 77, is originally from the Philippines and has learned enough English over the past two years that she has begun to tutor other seniors. The group of tutors and students assemble at a long table and work with one another. Dimacale said she has started to learn Spanish from some of the Hispanic residents she teaches.
“I like the people at the center, and I like to help people in my old age,” she said.
The average age of the attendees is in the 80s, but Chadwick said they have started getting more seniors in their 60s to attend who may have different needs. These seniors may be more active and take part in different activities. They also are more technologically savvy and will need access to computers and the Internet, she said.
The number of seniors in the state is climbing. From 2000 to 2010, New Jersey’s overall population grew by more than 4 percent while its senior population grew more than 6 percent, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.
Chadwick said the county is preparing for an increase of need in the future.
“Because of the baby boomer generation, (the demand) will be huge,” she said.
Elaine DiTizio, 64, recently retired from her job as a cashier at CVS and would go to the center on her days off while she was still working. The township resident said she is able to do activities she would be unable to afford on her own.
“I really enjoy it,” she said. “The people here are real nice. It’s a good time.”
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