Graying in Color: Seniors Helping Seniors

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

Frances Qian, an 85-year-old immigrant from Hong Kong, says he has helped several hundred Chinese seniors become U.S. citizens through his citizenship class. (Still from a video by Channon Hodge)

In New York City, there’s no rest for the retired. As senior centers with shrinking budgets struggle to serve a growing and increasingly diverse elderly population, they often find themselves turning to the seniors themselves for help, as volunteers and part-time workers.

At City Hall Senior Center, 85-year-old Frances Qian, an immigrant from Hong Kong, says he has helped several hundred Chinese seniors become U.S. citizens through his citizenship class. He also teaches English. Qian says the work helps him, as well as his students.

“Staying home is very boring for me,” said Qian in his learned English. “When they become a citizen, they are very happy. I’m happy, too. Then I feel: ‘Okay, I can do something for them. Even I am old, I can do something for them.’ This is my purpose.”

Grand Street Settlement’s fundraising director, Elize Hendler, said organizations like hers are constantly looking for funds for their aging programming and often come up short. The city’s redistributions and budget cuts, no matter how small, make an already difficult budget-balancing problem even worse for senior programs.

“There’s just not that many people interested in funding senior programs,” said Hendler. “It’ll be a death by a thousand small cuts.”

Senior center directors have quietly managed to deal with budget cuts by relying more heavily on volunteers from the community, partnering with organizations and schools, and tapping into their own more-active senior clientele for unpaid labor.

Ten years ago, Rego Park Senior Center ran many of its classes using paid instructors. Because of budget cuts, Program Director Irina Sarkisova says she had to cut classes, to the distress of her clients.

But over the years, Rego Park figured out a way to use volunteers to run the same number of programs they used to, and even more. They run five to 10 set classes per day, plus offer special events that change by month. Rego Park maintains four paid instructors, but volunteers run their Tai Chi and yoga classes, local artists offer music concerts, and masters-level social work students run workshops, including a new mental health club.

At the Baruch Elders Services Team program in the Lower East Side, seniors help serve meals. (Still from a video by Channon Hodge)

“We have wonderful, active members and they know people from the community, and they bring people to us, which is absolutely marvelous,” said Sarkisova. “Without volunteers, we couldn’t exist. It’s not possible; we have only two working office staff members.”

Still, Sarkisova said, it’s hard to rely on community volunteers, who have other responsibilities and sometimes paying jobs. While some can come in for a few weeks, they may not be able to commit long-term.

Seniors themselves can be the most reliable. At the BEST program on the Lower East Side, which is run by Grand Street Settlement and helps some 3,000 seniors living in nearby low-income housing, senior volunteers visit homebound residents, run bingo nights and raffles, and help decorate, cook and serve at the multicultural center’s slew of holiday parties.

“Everybody has been affected by the budget cuts,” said Director Yacyrenia Ortiz-Soba. “The seniors, they do a lot of stuff. They keep this center open.”

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