New York City is preparing for tomorrow’s seniors — who will outnumber school-aged children by 2030, when one-fifth of the city’s population will be over the age of 60.
To address the “longevity revolution,” as the Department for the Aging calls it, the agency is modernizing — overhauling its structure in an effort to improve the services it offers and to prep for the growing and diverse needs of the next generation of seniors.
Following a year-long consultative process with network providers, advocates, elected officials and community leaders, the agency decided to remodel its three core services: case management, home-delivered meals (better known as Meals on Wheels) and senior centers. The system, according to the DFTA, had not been re-examined since its inception in the 1960s.
“Communities around the world are in the midst of demographic transformation and New York City is no exception,” DFTA Commissioner Edwin Mendez-Santiago said in January, when the modernization was first announced.
“The aging services network needs to be strengthened to be ready for the diverse and increasing numbers of seniors we will be called on to serve,” Mendez-Santiago added. This challenge, he noted, is an opportunity to create a system that will make the city a model of modern urban aging.
The common thread shared by the three core services is that they are outdated and inefficient, and that they fail to address the needs of the modern senior citizen, according to the city agency.
Case management, which the DFTA describes as the “gatekeeper for in-home services,” is supposed to help older adults “age in place” by remaining in their communities. But case management services, as they stand today, are fragmented, uncoordinated and unconnected to the rest of senior services, the agency said.
Similarly, the DFTA’s Home-Delivered Meals Program, established in the late 1960s using funds from the federal Older Americans Act, “has become a disjointed, patchwork system across the city.”
The problem with senior centers, according to the department, is that they are underutilized. In fact, the agency claims that some 44 percent of the city’s 329 senior centers are chronically underutilized: of the city’s more than 1.3 million seniors, an average of only 2 percent eat a meal at a senior center on any given day.
The primary reason for this, the agency indicated, is that centers are failing to attract older adults who have recently retired and are not seeking center services.
The modernization aims to solve these problems by “streamlining the system.” By trimming expenses, cutting out unnecessary or redundant functions, and creating more specific job roles, the DFTA hopes to provide more productive and progressive services.
Employees of today’s senior centers believe the “streamlining” will cause senior citizens to lose the personal care they are used to in Queens.
Bobbie Sachman, director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City, said the city has the most community-based system in the nation. “You feel you have dignity, a reason to get up and out of bed,” Sachman said.
But she believes that will change under the revision. The city has already begun to pit one center against the next, destroying the bonds they’ve formed while working closely together for years.
The DFTA issued its first Request For Proposals for case management earlier this year. It wanted bidders who could fall in line with its objective: using a holistic approach to create a comprehensive system in which homebound seniors can engage in community life, obtain crucial services and remain living at home.
Jaqueline Eradiri, the executive director of the Ridgewood Older Adult Center for more than 20 years, put in a bid, but lost to Visiting Nurse Services. When that happened, Eradiri lost 20 hours of compensation from her paycheck. Funding also disappeared for her secretary, maintenance man, program officer and program assistant. “Some of those people lost their jobs, some went from full time to part time,” she said.
The next bidding process was for the meals on wheels program, which the city wanted to cut from 98 providers to 20 in order to minimize costs and improve efficiency.
In the RFP, it said providers would need to be capable of serving 1,350 meals to the community a day. ROAC’s maximum output is about 250 meals a day, while the Forest Park Senior Citizens Center in Woodhaven only serves about 50 or 60 people daily.
Eradiri joined with seven other senior centers in Queens to submit a group proposal in an effort to hold on to the service, which she believes is necessary to maintain Queens’ diversity. The borough’s senior centers and their Meals on Wheels programs cater to a variety of ethnic, cultural and religious groups, providing foods that are unique to each.
For example, the ROAC typically makes German and Italian food, while Young Israel of Forest Hills Senior League prepares Kosher food and the Korean Community Services Center serves Korean food.
The eight centers jointly hired a consultant for $10,000 to prepare the bid, but the city didn’t like the idea and turned it down. As a result, ROAC and the other centers will lose more funding when the contract goes into effect some time between January and February.
Also, rather than being fresh-made as they are today, the meals under the new contract will be frozen, though seniors can request they be heated up prior to delivery.
The DFTA views this as a positive: partnering with providers who offer both flash-frozen and hot meals will better serve seniors by providing them with greater choice and flexibility, according to the agency.
The final bidding process, for the actual operation of senior centers, is set to begin later this month.
According to the city, the shakeup of the system is necessary not only because of the underutilization, but also because of the benefits the city would reap if it adopts a comprehensive health and wellness program.
In keeping with the national trend, the city’s senior centers would be larger and would include activities such as walking clubs, blood pressure screening, exercise classes, and other social activities and intellectual classes.
The new approach would require smaller neighborhood senior centers to incorporate health and wellness activities into their programs while providing core services.
It would also give seniors the opportunity to frequent multi-service centers in each borough, offering greater diversity in services, programming and connections to other community resources, the DFTA said.
But employees of today’s senior centers do not share the enthusiasm with which the city talks of the new “supercenters,” as Donna Caltabiano, director of the Forest Park center, calls them. She, Eradiri and others in their position don’t know whether they could stay open even if they were awarded the contract.
As it is right now, Eradiri is getting paid for 48 hours of work every two weeks — not enough to pay her bills. She doesn’t know how much longer she can afford to work there. But if she goes, the center will likely disappear along with her. Caltabiano and her center already came within a breath of closure when they lost $132,000 of their $185,000 budget.
While jobs are on the line, the shakeup of the system will most affect the seniors that use the facilities and programs. Some of Eradiri’s clients have never been married or no longer have family. Sometimes the next of kin is also a senior. As far as an emergency contact goes, sometimes there’s no one else but the employees of the senior center.
Eradiri said her Meals on Wheels drivers know the habits of their clients; they know when they look dehydrated and can tell when something is bothering them. They have found people that have fallen and spent the night on the floor, and they have discovered people who have passed away. “They trust us. We have their keys.” She doubted a more regional service that delivered frozen meals would be able to offer the same care.
But Eradiri said she has over 600 members and the center is in constant use. If the city knows which centers aren’t being used, it should shut them down, she said. “Leave me alone.”