Senior services overhaul met with resistance

The Department for the Aging (DFTA) is overhauling many of its services and investing $117 million into senior centers beginning in fiscal year 2010, a decision that has the centers, advocacy groups, elected officials and thousands of seniors themselves up in arms.
With its “modernization” effort, DFTA aims to create a network of centers that would offer a variety of physical, social and mental wellness programs like exercise classes, volunteer opportunities and discussion groups. The city hopes to “make services more responsive, flexible, and attentive to the needs of seniors,” Mira Browne, DFTA Deputy Director of Public Affairs, wrote in an email.
The problem, says Bobbie Sackman of the Council of Senior Centers and Services of NYC, an advocacy group, is that DFTA would use “recycled money” instead of providing the centers with additional funding under the modernization plan. Money that would have financed the popular Meals on Wheels program, for instance, would instead be repurposed for the overhaul of a select group of centers that would become “hubs” under the plan, Sackman cautioned.
But Browne insists meals will remain a key senior center service, noting that centers will tailor their wellness activities to the communities they serve in an effort to attract older New Yorkers. Currently, only two percent of the city’s 1.3 million seniors attend a DFTA-sponsored senior center on any given day, Browne said.
However, those against the proposed modernization, including Councilmember Helen Sears, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and State Senator-elect Joe Addabbo - and about 30 other Councilmembers according to Sackman’s count - argue that the plan, which requires centers to apply for funding under a new Request for Proposal (RFP) process, will pit senior centers against one another.
“It is like throwing them up in the air and seeing where they land - and some of them won’t land. And some will land but we don’t know what kind of shape they’ll be in,” Sackman said.
Despite the fact that the allotted funding for the modernization effort is $23 million more than last year’s baseline for senior centers, Sackman estimates that around $2 million that is currently used toward Meals on Wheels will be siphoned into the RFP pool.
“It’s the same money,” she said. “It isn’t a gain - some senior is going to lose service for some other senior to gain service.”
Sears struck a similar tone after a December 4 press conference at which 14,000 petitions - signed by seniors who are calling on Mayor Bloomberg to suspend his DFTA plan until the city can ensure that funding is available for all city-wide centers to remain open - were brought to City Hall. An additional 3,400 petitions have been collected since.
“A society’s moral strength is judged in large part by how it treats its most vulnerable members, and in the case of our seniors, they are also some of our most valuable assets,” Sears said in a statement.
If the mayor moves forward with his RFP process, opponents argue, up to 85 senior centers may be shuttered. There are 329 citywide senior centers, and 70 in Queens, but there is no telling which would close as a result of the revamp, Sackman said.
“The message here is that we have terrible fiscal times and seniors are getting poorer,” Sackman added. “We’re hearing anecdotally that there are some centers where more seniors are showing up for meals. It’s a very unstable time - not a time you make changes like this.”
But DFTA says it began the modernization process over two years ago and has held over 180 forums, presentations and discussions regarding its plans, in addition to soliciting input from all parties involved - everyone from seniors to umbrella groups to elected officials.
While DFTA insists its goal is to enhance senior programming, not to close down senior centers, people like Sackman say a plan that looks good on paper does not necessarily translate into positive results.
“At the end of the day, it’s the 90-year-old that gets hurt,” Sackman said, emphasizing the importance of some of the existing programs that she believes will inevitably be affected by the modernization.
“These are the programs that keep elderly people in Queens and in their communities,” she said.

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