Seniors fear fewer centers, meal visits under revamp

By Albert Amateau

The men and women who belong to the city’s 329 senior centers and the thousands of homebound elderly people who receive Meals on Wheels five days a week are anxious about the city’s Department for the Aging restructuring plan.

In the Village, Caring Community runs three centers that serve 600 seniors a day, and the Greenwich House senior center serves nearly 100 on a typical weekday. Citywide, senior centers and meals programs serve an estimated 300,000 elderly people.

The Bloomberg administration has been billing the plan as modernizing, consolidating and improving services to seniors. The administration wants to transform traditional senior centers into “wellness centers” that also serve seniors’ cultural needs. But advocates for the aging fear the lack of community input and a central one-size-fits-all approach would not be appropriate for a diverse elderly population.

The underlying fact of the situation is that the number of seniors is increasing as baby boomers born in the 1940s reach retirement age. At the same time, funding for senior services has always been meager and is not increasing, according to most agencies that serve seniors.

Fearing a cut in the number of senior centers and a central meal-delivery program that would allow many seniors to fall through the cracks, elected officials, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and leaders of major service agencies, on April 9 won an agreement from the city to postpone issuing two requests for proposals, or R.F.P.’s, to implement the plan.

An R.F.P. for senior centers originally scheduled to go out in June will be postponed until September “to allow for continued discussion and collaboration,” according to a joint statement by administration officials, Quinn and a coalition of service providers.

Another R.F.P. for home-delivered meals, originally scheduled to be issued March 31, will go out May 1.

While service agencies have been talking with the city about the plan for nearly a year, the details of the plan are not clear. But some major aspects are common knowledge.

“Currently, 96 agencies deliver meals and this is about to change, going down to 10 or 20,” said Arthur Makar, executive director of the Caring Community, which runs three senior centers in the Village and one in Tribeca.

“My concern is that instead of being community based, it’s going to be administered in larger regions, one step away from the community where homebound seniors live,” said Makar.

Caring Community began 35 years ago and runs centers at its headquarters on Washington Square North, at the First Presbyterian Church center on W. 12 St. off Fifth Ave. and at Our Lady of Pompei Church at Carmine and Bleecker Sts., as well as one in Independence Plaza in Tribeca.

“Many of the people who used to come to the center 35 years ago have become homebound and we’ve had many years of building a relationship. Any change is likely to be difficult,” Makar said.

The meals service to homebound seniors follows case management, which used to be done by each center but will be done in the future by a few agencies who were recently awarded the city contract through an earlier R.F.P.

“To date, we figure there are at least 2,000 homebound elderly people currently receiving case-management services that the Department for the Aging did not count in the case-management R.F.P.,” said Bobbie Sackman, director of policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, an umbrella group.

The city has acknowledged that case-management agencies chosen through the R.F.P may find a “discrepancy” between the number of cases per district listed in the R.F.P. and the number of seniors being currently served. In an April 8 e-mail to case agencies, D.F.T.A. has promised to investigate the matter and correct any problem.

Sackman noted that Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 projects dramatic increases in the elderly population, and quoted the 2030 report statement that recommends increasing the number of senior centers and supportive housing in the years ahead.

Sackman fears the meals program would shift from daily delivery of hot meals to twice-a-week delivery of flash-frozen meals for many homebound seniors. Fewer deliveries would mean seniors would be more isolated, she said.

Gerri Matusewitch, Greenwich House director of programs, including the senior program, said Greenwich House wants to keep its arts-oriented senior center.

The city’s agreement to slow down the R.F.P. may give senior-service providers the chance to influence the process, Matusewitch observed, “But there is no new money, and money for senior services has never been adequate,” Matusewitch said. “There may be fewer senior centers after the R.F.P.,” she cautioned.

“The Village has a diverse population of seniors, and if we have to consolidate to fewer and bigger centers we risk losing the uniqueness of our service,” she added.

Matusewitch acknowledged that consolidation could bring economies of scale.

“It’s a business plan, but it may not be the best thing for social-service programs,” she said.