There are about as many senior citizens in Westport as school-age children.
But you can’t lump all our older folks together, any more than you can say kindergartners are the same as, um, seniors.
The men and women who frequent our Senior Center — formally known as the Westport Center for Senior Activities — range in age from 60s to 90s. Some come nearly every day; others regularly, or infrequently.
They head to the handsome downtown building for a variety of reasons: Fitness, aerobics, Pilates or yoga. Discussions and lectures. Meet longtime friends, and make new ones. Parkinson’s support groups. Lunch. Use computers. Play pool, bridge, poker, Scrabble or ping pong. Paint, sculpt or sketch. Read. Help with taxes, financial planning or Medicare options. Parties. Movies. Blood pressure screening or flu shots. Find companionship, and a community.
Our Senior Center is one of the most popular, well organized and best staffed in the country. But growth — up to 350 people a day — has created a critical need for enhancements.
In 2007, town planners predicted the Imperial Avenue center would run out of space in 2011. The recession forced improvements onto the back burner.
For the past 7 years, they’ve been part of the 5-year capital forecast. On Wednesday, May 17 (8 p.m., Town Hall), Senior Center representatives will ask for $3.9 million for enhancements.
The Senior Center — run under the umbrella of the Human Services Department — has been around since the mid-1980s. Originally one room in the YMCA’s Bedford Building, it expanded when Greens Farms Elementary School closed (space there was shared with the Westport Arts Center).
When Greens Farms reopened, the Senior Center moved to a couple of rooms at Staples High School. The Imperial Avenue facility — built with strong support from First Selectman Dianne Farrell — opened in 2004. (“Ahead of schedule and under budget,” director Sue Pfister notes with pride.)
Much has changed since then. Closing hours were lengthened and Saturdays added, to accommodate seniors who still work.
Westport’s 60-plus population has risen dramatically — and they’re living longer.
As the Senior Center expanded its programming, more men and women attended more often.
There’s no more room for some activities. Four times a year, when registration opens for popular classes like yoga (gentle, regular and intense levels), the line forms at 6:30 a.m.
The other day, Pfister joined Enhancement Committee chair Lynn Goldberg and member Martha Aasen to explain the $3.9 million request.
There are 3 prongs.
One involves adding 4,500 square feet, offering:
- More room for existing and new programs.
- Space to socialize. “Many people meet friends here; they don’t go to each other’s homes nowadays,” Pfister says.
- Meals to go (the Center serves 11,000 lunches a year — but for some seniors it’s their only real meal of the day).
- Flexibility to adapt to changing future needs. “There’s a whole group of ‘new elders’ coming down the line,” 87-year-old Aasen notes.
The 2nd element is parking and transportation. “If people can’t get here, our great programs are worthless,” Goldberg notes. For popular events, people now park as far away as Colonial Green.
“Senior-friendly” enhancements include more spots closer to the entrance, eliminating inclines, and adding ramps.
The 3rd category is “building tweaks.” This includes flashing work, making the front doors easier to use, adapting the computer room to the increase in laptops, and repositioning the fitness room so it opens onto walking trails on Baron’s South. (Parks and Recreation director Jen Fava is a member of the Enhancement Committee.)
The Senior Center is a Westport jewel. And it’s not just for seniors.
Pfister is a huge proponent of intergenerational activities. Staples students volunteer there (one particularly popular activity: iPhone and iPad training). STAR delivers meals. The Senior Center often partners with the Library and other town organizations to sponsor programs.
“Mixing generations together helps reduce cognitive decline,” Pfister says. “And younger people get a lot out of interacting with older ones.”
She is excited about a new, upcoming activity. Suzuki has offered to run a course. Pfister must decide between violin or voice lessons.
Why not both? I ask.
“There’s no room,” she says.
Not now, anyway.