Graying in Color: Aging in Place

As Baby Boomers age, senior advocates and the city administration are bracing themselves for an influx of retirees that is expected to increase New York City’s aging population by a third between now and 2030. Today’s seniors live longer, and they have less money and greater chronic health problems than the generation before. They are also more ethnically and culturally diverse, creating new challenges for senior services.

But even as some senior centers close during hard economic times, others have thrived when they unburdened themselves of a “one size fits all” approach. By tailoring programs to specific populations and individual tastes, some of the city’s 250-plus senior centers are finding new ways to create welcoming environments for seniors of all cultures, help seniors to stay in their longtime communities, and encourage seniors themselves to help fill the gaps caused by tight budgets and inadequate staffing.

This is the third installment in Voices of NY’s four-part multimedia series by Channon Hodge, Cheryl Chan and Justin Chan, exploring some of these new approaches.

What happens when a whole block gets older at the same time? “Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities,” known as NORCs, sometimes compel the city to bring the services to the seniors.

At Baruch Houses, a development in the Lower East Side, the residents have aged together, and now need senior services nearby. (Still from a video by Channon Hodge)

The Baruch Elders Services Team, known as BEST, a program on Manhattan’s Lower East Side run by Grand Street Settlement, helps some 3,000 seniors living in nearby low-income housing — and the volume of local seniors streaming through the doors increases monthly, administrators say.

As New York City becomes increasingly diverse, these NORCs present particular challenges, said Bobbie Sackman, the Director of Public Policy at the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City.

“How do you make it culturally competent?” Sackman said. “I mean, you have some senior centers where there are four languages spoken, so they have to have staff or people translating for them. I think they must celebrate every holiday imaginable, and all kinds of food. But they really become a welcoming community, and when you’re not isolated, you’re going to stay healthy.”

The point, Sackman explained, is to help seniors stay in their own homes.

“Sometimes I think it’s treated as if somebody woke up and they were 85, and ‘what are we going to do with them?'” Sackman said. “Obviously that’s not true… That person you’re looking at, who’s 85 or 90 now, was 30. And whatever their dreams are now, they’re still alive — and so they have as much right to dignity and whatever it takes to keep them home safely as anybody else does.”

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