What's in a name? 'Senior' cited as hurdle to center's image
Town's senior center looks to alter image
Updated 3:24 pm, Friday, November 30, 2012
On any given day at 100 Mona Terrace, you can find a computer class, get tips on genealogy searches, play pool or ping-pong, exercise, watch a movie, or learn tai chi. Even better, most activities don't cost a dime.
While the Fairfield Senior Center may have a range of offerings suited to widely different interests and needs, its name means many residents won't set foot there.
"It's a psychological thing," Richard DeAngelis said, while in the center's woodworking room recently. "For my mother's generation, 60 was a senior. Today, people work until 68 or 69.
"People are living longer and there is this image associated with senior centers."
Chris Lessen was talking with DeAngelis while working on an intricate bird carving.
"I know a woman in her 70s (and) she said, `I wouldn't be caught dead there. I couldn't sit around with a bunch of those seniors,' " Lessen said. "I just shut up, but that's what we're fighting."
Indeed, a recent survey done for the center by Millward Brown Inc., found the broad perception that the center is for "elderly or old people" or "for their parents -- in their 80s and 90s."
The survey, done at no cost to the town, found that nearly two-thirds of those 50 to 70 years old are still working at least part-time, and 77 percent of Fairfield's seniors report an annual income of more than $50,000.
Of the 934 residents who responded to the survey, 90 percent report no serious medical conditions and 96 percent still drive regularly.
However, the survey found the center doesn't offer programs for the younger, mature residents at the right times and older adults would like more evening and weekend programs.
"The hours are short," said DeAngelis, the president of the Fairfield Senior Center Association. The center "closes at 3:30; and the bus service, the last bus is at 2:30 p.m., so that discourages people."
Claire Grace, the center's director, agreed that the center should start being open some evening and weekend hours to allow younger, working seniors to participate in programs. And, she said, "Our name has to be changed to eliminate the word `senior.' "
"Today's baby boomers are active, affluent and able to go where they wish," Grace said. "The Fairfield Senior Center wants to become one of the best senior centers in Connecticut. In the meantime, we are looking at ways to offer evening and weekend programs in the community."
Lessen and DeAngelis both said the building that houses the center -- the former Oldfield School -- needs to be upgraded.
"We realized the problems are more than just some new hardware and new curtains," DeAngelis said.
He was among a group of Fairfielders who visited other area senior centers to use as a yardstick.
"It was a real eye-opener," he said.
They found centers that don't offer nearly the same amount of programs as Fairfield, but work with bigger budgets and more staffing. In Wallingford, for example, there are six full-time employees and eight part-time employees at the senior center, including a part-time person to handle all the money and another to issue press releases.
In Fairfield, the newsletter is done by a volunteer who was also teaching classes in computer use and repair.
The "better" centers, DeAngelis said, are open at least one night a week, as well as Saturday or Sunday morning.
"Many of the recommendations are going to require additional support from the town," Grace said."
For example, the newsletter is first-class, the survey found, but there is no budget to mail it out.
"We need more funding for advertising, and an improved website perhaps with the capability of online registrations for programs," Grace said. "Modernizing the facility or possibly looking into a new building will be essential."
Senior center funding is included in the $563,478 budget for the town's Social Services Department, which also administers the Greater Bridgeport Transit District contract and assists residents of all ages who have difficulty providing the basic necessities of life for themselves and their families.
Grace, who plans to retire at the end of the year, serves as the director for both the center and social services
Developing a database could go a long way to helping the center, DeAngelis said, explaining that there is a program, "My Senior Center," that allows for membership cards to be swiped to learn what programs and activities are being used.
"One of the costliest things we've talked about is how can we improve our image," he said.
If the town's residents just made a visit to the center, Lessen said, they might find something they like. As as example, he recalled a man who wandered into the woodworking room, started talking to him about wood carving, and discovered a talent he never knew he had.