Members of the East Hampton Town Board have been doing the right thing by holding discussions about the design of a new senior citizens center. It is important that they are as public as can be about what the center will offer.
According to the latest census estimate, East Hampton Town is about 22 percent over age 65. This is a greater proportion than Suffolk County as a whole and more than 7 percent greater than the elder population of New York City. These figures are expected to grow as the last of the baby boomers pass that milestone. To the extent possible, local governments and private service providers need to prepare now for the increases among their aging community members.
To that end, East Hampton Town has conducted surveys of 60-plus residents about what they would like to see included in the new center, and has offered tours of the existing senior facilities in town. More than 120 people took part in one way or another last year, according to the Human Services Department. The priority list that emerged in order of preference included exercise options, workshops and classes, lectures, a dining room and coffee bar, outdoor gardens, space for art-making, indoor games, and social clubs, and outdoor sports.
But the responses were as wide ranging as could be; one common theme that we especially liked was that it should not be limited to older people and that younger folks should be welcomed — the exception being during “senior hours.” It should be a community center with opportunities for all ages, several people wrote. One person called for a lanai “so that we can sit out even in the rain.”
The trick for town board members will be that they will have to see into the future; about half the respondents to the surveys were people who had taken advantage of the town’s existing senior center in the preceding five years. These voices need to be considered, but so too will the needs of younger older people, so to speak. After the baby boomers, Generation X is the next largest portion of the United States population. Thinking about what they might want is also important. Some ideas include private workspaces (to finally finish that novel!), printers, tech support, website hosting, and innovative programs that focus on the mind, body, and community.
Asked what the new facility should be called, a sizable portion of those who responded said “Senior Center.” Yet others felt that it should be more broadly welcoming, such as “East Hampton Community Center” or simply “E.H. Social.” Among those expressing an opinion on the name, something inspirational or historical, such as “1648 Center,” for the year the town was founded, seemed right. Clearly, there are many divergent ideas.
Also important will be ways to support caregivers — in at least both English and Spanish. As the 80-plus population also grows, a projected shortage of helpers is projected to become acute. Sharing groups for family members and paid aides could be an increasingly essential need as time goes on. Legal and planning advice for elders looking into adding an accessory dwelling, or “granny cottage,” onto their properties might be valuable as well. A senior center could also offer one-on-one cross-generational planning advice so that older people feel they will be looked after in their sunset years.
At a recent board meeting East Hampton Town officials spent time talking about construction details for the new senior center, including what kind of shingles should be on its exterior. We hope that when it comes to programming, the board will engage in similar granular detail. In this, they must look forward as much if not more so than they do into the past. Maybe ask a group of 30-somethings the next time.