CHATHAM — There are a number of steps the town needs to take to prepare for the expected surge in its senior population in the decades ahead, but the one that's likely to generate the most discussion is the replacement of the senior center on Stony Hill Road.
Consultant Kathleen Schatzberg, the former president of Cape Cod Community College, is offering her services for free to the town; she analyzed the results of the council on aging's community needs assessment and drafted an action plan for community leaders to consider. Presenting that plan to selectmen last week, Schatzberg encouraged town officials to study the feasibility of building a new senior center or relocating to a more suitable location.
“The facility is barely adequate at this point,” Schatzberg said. “A new building obviously is a big ticket item,” she said, but the existing senior center has a number of key shortcomings. There is a need for private spaces where workers can meet with clients in confidentiality, and no such spaces exist, she said. Programs for seniors take place on all three levels of the building, which can be a challenge for clients with mobility problems.
The current senior center was not designed for that purpose. Built in 1989 and purchased by the town in 1993 for $445,000, the building has been retrofitted over time to accommodate the council on aging. Before moving its operations to the Stony Hill Road site, the council on aging operated from the Depot Road school, which was largely vacant at the time. Many of those who responded to the Council on Aging needs assessment specifically mentioned the need for a new building. Schatzberg said.
Selectman Dean Nicastro said the senior center is “considerably unappealing for its purpose” but is well utilized. Given that activities are happening in the basement, on the ground floor and upstairs, and that many clients need the elevator to get around the building, it represents an obvious fire hazard, Nicastro said. When it comes to the services provided by the council on aging, the facility is a poor fit.
“It is absolutely the wrong building,” he said.
While an obvious approach might be to enlarge or modernize the facility – and additions have been proposed several times in the past – Nicastro said he wouldn't favor that approach.
“That building is not suitable for renovation” as a senior center, he said. A better approach might be to relocate the operation to the community center, which also lacks a certain stigma, he added.
“Many elders don't want to be seen at a council on aging or a senior center,” Nicastro said.
While the community center might be a natural home for the council on aging, as it is in towns like Harwich, it has its own challenges, Schatzberg said. Chiefly, like the existing senior center, the community center has three floors. Any number of options need to be considered, including the addition of a new wing on the community center, she said.
In the past, a need for adult day services has prompted some to propose an addition on the Stony Hill Road building for that purpose. Currently, seniors needing that kind of care travel to private adult day programs in Harwich or a program at the Orleans Senior Center. Nicastro said a need may still exist for more adult day options in town.
“I can't imagine that there aren't people in Chatham who would take advantage of it if it were more localized,” he said.
With construction of a new fire department headquarters, the town recently completed a series of capital projects. It is also in the early phases of a 30-year, multi-million dollar wastewater management project. In light of those factors, Selectman Cory Metters said any proposal for a new capital project can't be taken lightly.
“That's going to be a serious, serious discussion, but I'm willing to have it,” he said.
Schatzberg said she knows that Chatham has one of the lowest property tax rates around, “and people like it that way.” In considering a new senior center, and many of the other recommendations in her action plan, she has focused on ways to keep costs in check.
“There are people of great means who live in this town,” she said. When it comes to the biggest capital needs, it might be wise to have the Friends of the Council on Aging take an active role in raising funds, she said.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said he recently visited the senior center for the first time in years, and the experience was telling.
“The building just doesn't do what we need to do for our elders,” he said. “We really need a new facility.” Given that the town has invested so heavily in most other areas of infrastructure, it makes sense for town staff to look into the steps necessary for a feasibility study for a new senior center, Dykens said.
“I think this is one of the remaining items we need to address,” he said.
Among her other recommendations, Schatzberg suggested planning for necessary staffing increases for the senior center in the years ahead and finding new solutions to the lack of public transportation for Chatham's senior citizens – including possibly a partnership with the ride-sharing business Uber. Work needs to be done to ensure that local seniors can afford to age in place in their own homes, possibly by developing a plan for house-sharing with young workers.
Additional outreach programs will be needed in the future to provided preventative services to the aging population, Schatzberg noted, and new programming should be developed that will bring in clients at a younger age. Doing so will help people build connections with the council on aging “when they're not in any kind of a crisis situation,” she said.