Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
WELLESLEY — “I’m getting a flu shot,” said Helen Turner. “Then we can talk.”
Turner, 88, is at the shiny new Tolles Parsons Center in the heart of town. The ribbon cutting was Oct. 22, but it didn’t take long for the word to spread. Wellesley needed a place like this. “Absolutely,” said Turner.
The offerings here make your head spin. The oldsters are digging it.
“I like the sociability,” said Turner, a retired nurse. “There’s no need to be lonely with a place like this. I even hooked up with a high school classmate.”
“They’ve been talking about a place like this for 10 years,” said Joanne Burgess, Turner’s classmate from the Wellesley High class of 1948. “They didn’t want to spend the money. There were a lot of people against it.”
“Many were opposed because of the taxes,” said Wellesley resident Jack Lovewell, 87, whose wife of 64 years died in 2015. “I live in a big house I inherited from my wife.”
He’s finding a second home at Tolles Parsons. A warm, cozy one.
It was Wellesley resident Mary Esther “Billie” Tolles — who died in 2005 at 94 — and her cousin Dr. Evelyn Parsons who got the ball rolling. Tolles left the town $825,000 to look into a drop-in place senior citizens could call their own.
“That was the catalyst,” said Framingham resident Gayle Thieme, Wellesley’s director of senior services. A proposal went to the selectmen and a study committee was formed in 2007. Put to a 2016 vote of Wellesley residents, the proposal won 2,217 to 1,722. Construction began in June 2016. The $10 million, two-story structure went up fast.
“It was like going zero to 160,” said Thieme. “It’s what the [senior] citizens deserved. What you hear a lot is that it’s bright and inviting.”
After his wife’s death, Lovewell’s life suddenly became empty.
“I’ve been very lonely,” said Lovewell, wearing a black beret. “I come here three times a week. It’s a great thing, meeting new people.”
He was a teacher for 60 years, mostly at Wellesley Junior High. A theater lover, Lovewell has joined a play-reading group at the center. “I started acting when I was 5,” he said. He also performed and directed for the Wellesley Players.
Needham resident Sande Lafaver is a regular here. She’s 100 going on 50. Told that a reporter would like to speak with her, “Lafaver, eyes twinkling, said “Oh really?” She’s clearly a charmer. Someone points out that she always has a nice smile. “That’s because I have a lot of teeth,” said Lafaver. “Being 100 is wonderful. The key is eating well. No sweets. Lots of vegetables. I eat a lot of fish. My parents were from Norway.”
Her disarming smile is a giveaway that she’s very much at home here. “I think it’s important to be with senior citizens,” she said. Nothing seems to escape her. “I’ve got my wits. I know what’s going on.”
Yep, she’s 100.
A 2010 census revealed Wellesley had 5,429 residents 60 or over. “I think that’s increased,” said Thieme. “We’re busy from the time we open to when we leave. We’re just slammed.”
You don’t have to be old enough to have voted for FDR to settle in at Tolles Parsons. One morning Jack Guerin of Weston was having his usual cup of coffee at Pete’s in downtown Wellesley. Fred Wright, a Finance Committee member and big booster of the center from the start, suggested Guerin check out the place.
“I told him ‘I don’t even live in Wellesley, and I’m only 57,’ ” said Guerin. “He said ‘we don’t care. We take anyone from any town and any age.’”
So he went, and has become a regular presence. Guerin, tall and athletic-looking, rides his bike here. “I love talking to these people, taking in their wisdom,” he said. “I met a 94-year-old woman who said she was a model for Life magazine. I’m interested in learning some things here, like Mahjong. I’ve got some back problems, so maybe I’ll do yoga.”
Tolles Parsons has five full-time and seven part-time employees. More than 200 volunteers have chipped in. “It’s a well-oiled machine,” said Guerin.
Helen Turner has taken up making teddy bears for Children in Crisis and the elderly, a class that’s offered here. “The teddy bears are for people who need something to love,” she said. Turner pulls her daily calendar from her purse. It shows October was a full month of activity. Cribbage. Bingo. Knitting. “I’m here almost every day.” That’s become the norm for many visitors.
It’s a place where loneliness is drowned out.
“They tell us what they want,” said Thieme. “The possibilities are endless. We try to have something for everybody. The less able-bodied can play card games, take knitting classes or attend a lecture.” There’s Pickleball for beginners. Tai chi. A photography club. Wii bowling. Music, magic, and comedy shows. It’s a long, enticing list.
Age 60 is just a number at Tolles Parsons. “We don’t card at the door,” said Thieme. “Some people come in with their grandchildren. We’re seeing a lot of new faces . . . some younger, between 50 and 55.”
Fabian Lothian is 89 and lives at Morton Circle, the subsidized senior housing across the street. This new place has freshened up his life.
“I come as often as I can,” he said. He takes lunch here, followed by a movie. “Everything’s so organized. It’s better than the other building.”
That would be the Wellesley Community Center, which the town’s seniors shared with many other groups. It had few of the offerings Tolles Parsons provides.
The long, sometimes contentious dialogue over whether Wellesley needed a senior center like this has been answered.
“We have baby boomers coming now,” Thieme said.
The elderly no longer have to feel isolated at home. Those who no longer drive can take the bus service. Others get here through the kindness of a son or daughter or a good neighbor.
It took faith and grit for this place to rise from the ground, and shine, a dwelling where the elderly fill the café and catch up on their lives over coffee or tea; or sit on the patio and relax.
Anyone previously opposed to Tolles Parsons should pay a visit, see the magic unfold.
The people who have made this place a destination may not all be kicking up their heels, but they’re sure as heck counting their blessings.
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