Giving senior councils an energy boost
Massachusetts communities are getting older, and quickly.
People are staying put in their homes. Senior centers are bursting at the seams. And from the Berkshires to Cape Cod, the number of people age 60 and older has surpassed that of those under 20.
Leading the way is the region stretching from south of Boston to the Cape Cod Canal, where the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts projects that roughly 30 percent of the population will be 60 or older by 2025.
Meanwhile, councils on aging, the municipal departments that operate senior centers in almost all of the state’s 351 cities and towns, are struggling financially and anticipating greater challenges down the road.
Under state law, councils on aging may receive donations, but they aren’t allowed to fund-raise, even though their budgets generally cover only operating expenses and salaries. Without Friends groups, the nonprofit organizations that serve as fund-raising arms, most councils would be lost.
“Every council on aging in Massachusetts needs more funding to meet the needs,” said David P. Stevens, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging. “This is why Friends groups are so essential.”
Not every group that supports a community’s elder services calls itself “Friends” or follows the same agenda. But a Friends group by any other name is still an organization dedicated to raising money to support programs and services not covered by local and state budgets.
In Scituate, the Friends of Scituate Seniors is focused on raising money for a new building to replace the current senior center, located in a single room in a former firehouse with only 15 parking spaces outside.
Daily, between 40 and 60 people attend programs at the tiny facility and at several satellite locations across town. But the Friends say many more of the roughly 5,000 seniors in town would take advantage of programs and services if the building was more comfortable and the parking more convenient.
“I think the senior citizens deserve to have a better facility than they have presently,’’ said Pam Davis, vice president of the Friends of Scituate Seniors. “It’s inadequate for the number of seniors in Scituate. They’re missing out on what other senior centers are able to give their citizens.”
Linda Hayes, director of the Scituate Council on Aging, said the word “inadequate” is an understatement.
“We’ve done our best to make it comfortable,’’ she said, “but it’s not the home-away-from-home where you come for a day.”
Almost 20 years ago, when Carol Hamilton became director of the Marshfield Council on Aging, the senior center occupied one room in the public library. Today, a building that opened in 2003 isn’t big enough.
In a town of 25,000, according to the 2010 US Census, 7,100 townspeople were 60 and older; between 2000 and 2010, this group increased by 58 percent, one the largest spikes in the state; and by 2035, according to researchers at the Donahue Institute, 36 percent of Marshfield’s residents will be in this age bracket.
“You’re constantly struggling for resources to provide for the older population. Municipal resources are stretched, and we’re not able to grow as much as we’d like or need,” said Hamilton, explaining why her agency depends so heavily on the Marshfield Council on Aging Boosters, who raised more than $100,000 for the now overcrowded senior center.
In Kingston, the Friends of the Kingston Council on Aging serves a hot, homemade lunch at the senior center every Thursday to between 80 and 100 older residents. The group also subsidizes ice-cream socials, pizza parties, and teas for the town’s 3,565 seniors.
Thirty years ago, the Friends were holding bake sales. Three years ago, the group received its first grant, $500 from a local bank to finance a falls prevention program.
“The Friends group works closely with the director of the senior center to identify the needs and wants of seniors and balance” them, said Shelley Loring, 65, the former assistant town clerk who serves as president of the Kingston Friends, a seven-member board.
In Duxbury, The Friends of the Duxbury Council on Aging funds 11 percent of the council’s salary budget. The group also holds three annual fund-raisers.
“Without the Friends, we couldn’t offer as many programs and services,” said Joanne Moore, director of the Council on Aging. “They are unbelievably generous.”
Financial support is essential in Sharon, as well, where the Friends of the Sharon Council on Aging runs two fund-raisers every year: a bulk mailing appeal soliciting memberships, sent to every household, which raises about $6,000 annually; and a holiday raffle. The Friends’ donations pay for an annual birthday party for residents in their 90s, a volunteers’ appreciation breakfast, and a cabaret night. But funds also subsidize emergency requests for food, fuel oil, and other necessities.
“The driving force is the members, the volunteers,” said Ralph Generazzo, president of the Friends’ group.
Middleborough Services to the Elderly subsidizes lunch and ride programs and respite for families caring for older relatives at home, resources that Andrea Priest, executive director of the Middleborough Council on Aging, said are critical.
But the group also provides funds for unanticipated needs and emergencies not covered by the town budget. It has replaced a broken freezer and worn tablecloths at the senior center. It subsidizes entertainment and refreshments. And it pays for heating oil or gasoline for a car when a senior runs short.
“The beauty of this funding is the process and speed of getting things done,” Priest wrote in an e-mail. “I submit a form and they vote. When something breaks down or a client is in need, I can get a quick response.”
David Klein, a former codirector of the Abington Council on Aging, who now heads a counterpart in Carlisle, said that diversity in Friends groups, by age and experience, is key to meeting growing demands for financial support.
In Abington, two booster groups, the longtime Abington Elderly and the newer Friends of the Abington Seniors, raise and donate money for infrastructure and programs.
About nine years ago, when the town unexpectedly cut funding to both its senior council and parks department to deal with a budget deficit, the Friends of the Abington Seniors stepped up to fill in the gap.
These efforts, and others by communities across the Commonwealth, have not gone unnoticed.
In his recent State of the State address, Governor Charlie Baker announced that his budget for fiscal year 2019 includes a $2.9 million increase in formula grant funding for councils on aging, raising the current $9.70 per older person to $12.
Baker also noted that Massachusetts has been designated the second state, after New York, to become part of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, part of a World Health Organization initiative (www.aarp.org/livable).
This was good news for councils on aging and the groups that support them.
But it was also a reminder of the challenges that remain and are likely to grow. Among the 50 states, Massachusetts has the second to the highest percentage of older people struggling to pay their bills and stay in their homes, just below Mississippi.