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What It's Like to Age in Place in East Hampton

Thu, 05/16/2024 - 13:19
 Bruce and Mary Siska met at East Hampton High School and will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this summer.
Ashley Milne-Tyte photos

Sharon Rafferty was 23, married with three little boys, when she moved to East Hampton from Manhattan in the spring of 1968. The city was on edge, and her husband was having a hard time finding work.

 The family swapped their fifth-floor walkup for a two-bedroom house on Cedar Court. The rent was $125 a month.

 Mrs. Rafferty spent many years here raising a family and working as a waitress, and she's glad to be aging in her adopted hometown.

 "I love it here," she said. "The seasons, the fresh air . . . and I have friends who I've had for a long time."

 Now widowed, she lives with her youngest son and his family in Springs. She suffers from chronic back pain and hasn't driven a car in years, but says the situation is manageable. If one of her three boys can't drive her, she catches a bus to the village or books a town bus through the East Hampton Town Senior Center, which will take her to a doctor's appointment or the supermarket.

 She plays bingo and eats lunch at the center twice a week.

Sharon Rafferty

 "The people who run it are awesome, always trying to find us things to do and keep us busy," she said.

 Mrs. Rafferty is one of the 32 percent of East Hampton residents who are over the age of 60 -- a number that's shot up in the last decade and continues to grow.

 They're a mix of people whose families were from here, long-ago transplants, and recent retirees. 

 "Aging is different now," said Diane Patrizio, director of human services for East Hampton Town. She points out that the senior center serves people spanning at least two generations, from ages 60 to 100. Some go to Florida for the winter, others are lower-income. Some are frail, but most are active, she said, and "doing really well."

Keeping Active and Engaged

 Bruce and Mary Siska met at East Hampton High School and will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this summer.

 Do they think much about "aging well?"

 "Don't think about it," said Mr. Siska.

 "I do," said Mrs. Siska.

 Mr. Siska clarified. For him, aging well means doing what you've always done.

 "People say, 'You're 80-some-odd years old, why aren't you retiring?' " he told The Star. "I say, 'Why should I retire when I'm enjoying what I'm doing?' And it keeps me busy and it makes me get up in the morning."

 Mr. Siska is still active in his heating and plumbing business. Sometimes a little too active. He recently finished installing a water heater -- a two-day job -- and was not eager to repeat the process.

 Mrs. Siska, who spent many years as the librarian at East Hampton Middle School, says she is conscious of caring for the couple's health. "We do try to eat healthy meals and take care of ourselves" in addition to regular medical checkups, she said.

 But well-being is about more than physical health, something they are well aware of. Socializing and giving back to their community are important to the couple. Mrs. Siska is an officer at her church, and both are involved with the Rotary Club. Mr. Siska enjoys playing golf.

 "I don't want so much going on that I'm out and about every day or in the evening a lot," said Mrs. Siska. "But I like to be out, I like to be involved, and I like to be with people."

Audrey Gaines

 She’s not alone. Audrey Gaines was so busy it was hard to pin her down to discuss her thoughts about aging. If she's not socializing or taking classes at the senior center, she's going to the movies, volunteering with the Ladies Village Improvement Society, or serving on various committees.

 Ms. Gaines, who is 83 and lives alone, has occasionally thought about moving to Virginia to be closer to her daughter. But "this is home," she said.

 She describes herself as one of the few African-Americans from the families she was raised with who are still in East Hampton.

 "Growing up here, I had a lot of diversity," she said. "I've lost a tremendous amount of friends I grew up with. A lot have passed away or moved away."

 However, Ms. Gaines, the former director of youth services for East Hampton Town, is the outgoing type.

 "I've made friends in other groups of people, so it hasn't really made me feel isolated," she said.

 She laments the unaffordability of most stores in the area, particularly for seniors: "It's very expensive to live here!"

 The L.V.I.S. is her silver lining. She says because of her work there, she often snaps up a few bargains before the rest of us.

 "My faith probably helps me, too," she said, as an older person, "to know I'm not here forever, so why don't I enjoy myself while I'm here?"

 Alice Wood shares that attitude. "I've had a great life," she said.

 "My knees hurt and my thumbs hurt, but so what?"

 She says medical facilities are easier to reach now than they have been, with less need to drive beyond Southampton. She's not sympathetic to those who complain the area lacks services.

Alice Wood

 "I think we're doing pretty darn well out here," she said.

 Changes? She's seen a few since 1950, when she first came to East Hampton as a 12-year-old camper.

 "People are coming in from a different lifestyle . . . but they don't bother me," said Mrs. Wood, who lives next door to her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. "I don't get excited about what happens around me. I'm happy in my little house in my little world, and that's really all I care about."

Planning for Retirement

 If you're thinking of retiring here, Chip Rae has some advice: Prepare ahead of time.

 Mr. Rae retired to East Hampton a decade ago, and lives in a house he bought in 1988. But he was engaged in the community long before he left New York City for good. 

 "The trick is to have hobbies you're passionate about, and then you can use those as stepping stones to do things out here," he said.

 Mr. Rae is now chairman of the East Hampton Town Architectural Review Board. But his interest in architecture is decades-long. He joined the board of the Historical Society while he was still working and got involved in the summer antiques show and the Thanksgiving house tour. He said those experiences were instrumental in introducing him to new people.

 He's also a keen gardener, and had a bag of chicken manure in the driveway to prove it. His love of gardening and showing his garden has helped him meet like-minded souls.

 His dogs have boosted his social life, too. Right now he owns Cody, a Corgi who was initially suspicious of a visitor.

 "Corgis are a little unusual," he said, and attract attention from passers-by, usually other dog owners who stop to chat. Through the breeder from whom he bought Cody, "I met very good friends in Bridgehampton, a gay couple who have Cody's sister," said Mr. Rae. They now get together for regular dog walks. 

 A multipronged approach is best, he said. "It's these little things that add up eventually to a complete picture," and a full life in retirement.

Chip Rae

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