Thanks to the efforts of a coalition of senior services along with the heartfelt pleas of hundreds of senior citizens, state legislators have restored $400,000 in state funding cuts to senior centers made over a decade ago.
In Warwick, if a grant application goes as expected, the Pilgrim Senior center could receive over $76,000 in FY19, versus the approximately $38,000 they received this fiscal year.
“You spoke, and the General Assembly listened!” reads a flier thanking Pilgrim Senior Center residents following the signing of the budget by Governor Gina Raimondo in June.
As one of 46 senior centers in Rhode Island, the Pilgrim Senior Center provides transportation, financial aid and education, employment assistance and socialization opportunities for elderly citizens in Warwick. The senior center usually welcomes around 6,500 visitor annually.
Meg Underwood, Director of Senior Services, said these services offered by senior centers are often overlooked by most people, despite what important resources they are for aging members of the community.
Health, fitness and wellness programs are also provided at the senior center. The Aging in Community Subcommittee reports that participation in these programs, along with the social connections seniors are able to make in centers, can slow or even prevent functional deterioration in elderly citizens. Financial assistance for struggling residents is also provided.
Simply put, the goal of senior centers is to allow the elderly to remain independent as long as possible, and to introduce them to all opportunities for personal growth and stability that are available to them.
However, in 2006 state funding to senior centers was cut from $859,786 to $400,000 – a 53 percent reduction.
The Senior Center Directors Association, the Senior Agenda Coalition and the Rhode Island Long Term Care Coordinating Council have all been part of an ongoing, extensive effort to restore funding.
Underwood, who is also the president of the Senior Center Directors Association, was one of the key figures that contributed to the passing of the funding restoration bill. In her letter to Rep. Teresa Tanzi, Chair of the House Finance Human Services Subcommittee, Underwood conveyed her support for the budget increase.
Research has shown that older adults who participate in senior center programs are healthier, both physically and mentally, Underwood explained in her letter. She went on to detail the importance of services provided by senior centers, and their necessity in the face of an ever-growing population of seniors.
On March 6, the Senior Agenda Coalition hosted the Second Annual Legislative Forum at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick. Accompanying Underwood at the Forum were several other prominent representatives of senior services that supported increasing the budget for senior centers. The delegation included Bill Flynn, Executive Director of the Senior Agenda Coalition, Maureen Maigret, Chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee and Sylvia Dulgarian, a financial education volunteer at the Pilgrim Senior Center. Also in attendance was Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, the sponsor of the bill that would alter the budget to include more state funding for senior centers.
Members of the Pilgrim Senior Center also attended the forum, where they were able to offer verbal testimonies about the importance of the senior center and its offered programs in their daily lives. In total, 386 seniors attended the forum to speak about their experiences with senior services in the state, including members of the Leon Mathieu Senior Center in Pawtucket and Cranston Senior Enrichment Center.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, also in attendance, listened to the perspectives offered by the seniors who pledged their support of the funding increase.
The delegation also offered testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on April 12 and the House Finance Committee on April 24.
The Senior Agenda Coalition was largely responsible for coordinating this effort, says Underwood.
As part of the effort to convince committee members to increase senior center funding, Underwood also invited members of the Pilgrim Senior Center to write letters to the House and Senate Finance Subcommittees about their own experiences in the center. Within only a week of her request, Underwood received more than 200 individual letters.
Their authors included members, relatives of members and volunteers of the Pilgrim Senior Center, all of who believed that the services offered by the center were crucial to aging citizens.
When she had to leave before she could testify before the House Finance Committee, Underwood left written testimony for the committee members, which included many of those letters she was provided with.
“Counselors many times identify seniors who are entitled to – but totally unaware of – financial assistance in several areas,” wrote Dulgarian in her letter. As a financial education volunteer, Dulgarian is part of a team of volunteers that works to help elders file tax returns. These volunteers meet twice a week with seniors between the months of February and April in order to electronically file tax returns free of charge.
“The Pilgrim Senior Center gave [Francis] purpose – a reason for getting up in the morning,” wrote Sandra Coutcher, the companion and caretaker of the late Francis Canning. “I wish I could tell you in person.”
Flynn, who began his work with the Senior Agenda Coalition in 2008, says he directly witnessed the negative repercussions of the budget cut, including senior centers not having enough staff to function at an ideal level. Underwood has also discussed the lack of staff being an issue affecting the quality of service provided by senior centers. She noted that two centers, Fox Point Senior Center in Providence and the Central Falls Senior Center, were forced to close as a direct result of the reduced State funding, and that the Lillian Feinstein Senior Center in Providence had to greatly reduce its schedule.
After the cuts, Underwood says, the Pilgrim Senior Center was able to remain open as the City of Warwick made up for lost funding. She said that, while the potential additional funding allocation will be at the discretion of new Mayor Joseph Solomon to spend, “Mayor Solomon is committed to strengthening and expanding senior services.”
Elsewhere in the city, Solomon and Ward 7 Councilman Stephen McAllister have already expressed their desire to reinvigorate the Buttonwoods Community Center, which prior to closing drew many seniors for recreational activities.
With the added funding, Underwood hopes that the Pilgrim Senior Center will be able to improve its transportation services, which provides elders with access to important local establishments such as grocery stores, libraries, pools, pharmacies, as well as access to health screenings and social service programs.
Currently, seven Transwick buses are in service at the Pilgrim Senior Center. Added funding could allow the center to purchase more buses and pay for maintenance.
The revision for the FY19 budget now allots $524,397 to senior services from the City of Warwick. This includes all services except for maintenance and custodial services, which are a part of the budget of the Department of Public Works, and Transwick buses.
Westbay Community Action will provide $20,900 in grants to assist with services that guide seniors through the process of receiving health care. This program has saved seniors over $174,000 in the open enrollment period alone.
Advocating for increased government support for senior centers is a more urgent issue than ever, as the population of senior citizens above the age of 65 in Rhode Island has increased exponentially and is projected to continue increasing at a steady rate. Underwood reports that 19.2 percent of Warwick citizens are currently 65 years of age or older.
According to statistics provided by the Aging in Community Subcommittee, 24.7 percent of Rhode Island’s population is expected to be 65 years of age or older by 2040.