By Greg Porell
Sharon – Activities and services provided at the local “adult” center continue to change and adapt to meet the requests of a new generation of patrons. The evolution of the senior center, or council on aging, has been an on-going process that has been led by a number of forwarding thinking directors over the past quarter century.
Many of these early visionaries reshaped the day’s activities and support services offered to a town’s adults. Now, many early leaders are starting to step aside for the next generation to continue the progress in a number of South Shore cities and towns including Pembroke, Weymouth and recently Sharon.
After 25 years on the job, Norma Fitzgerald retired from her role as Executive Director at the Sharon Council on Aging. Fitzgerald led the efforts to help the town secure new accommodations in the Sharon Community Center overlooking Lake Massapoag, while developing programs and introducing a range of new offerings to attract aging baby boomers.
“The number of people that come is increasing,” Fitzgerald said when asked about some of the significant changes she has seen over the years. “Our new location has helped attract people, we have increased staff and expanded our programs and services to meet these new visitor’s needs.”
Today, programs address the whole person, from yoga and meditation, nutrition, continuing education, painting, support groups for grandparents raising grandchildren and men’s clubs.
“We have a men’s club now,” laughed Fitzgerald. “It was a struggle to start it, but now there are 300 members from Sharon and other area towns. They meet once a week and take part in a number of activities. The group has truly been a life saver for some of the men.”
Back when senior centers consisted of an office in a municipal building, with limited space and staff there was only so much that these centers could provide the community. That has changed.
We have seen the planning and development of spacious, well featured buildings that now house senior centers in towns like Cohasset, Duxbury, Hanover, Kingston, Marshfield, Plymouth, Rockland and a complete remodeling of the Beachwood on the Bay school in Quincy into the new Kennedy Center, which brought together all of the programs and services provided at multiple locations though out the city for 17,000 annual visitors under one roof with plenty of space.
Fitzgerald believes communities need to continue investment in building adult centers as a way to handle the increased number of visitors they now host on a daily basis and to make it possible to provide all of the programs and services now in demand.
layed an integral part in the coordination of early efforts across a number of towns in southern Norfolk County, working with Hessco Elder Services, town officials in Sharon and surrounding towns and the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging (MCOA).
Fitzgerald served as Co-Chair of this regional group and on the advisory board for MCOA, eventually taking a role as a board member. One of the most significant achievements for the regional group took place 10 years ago with foundation of a senior tax relief committee started in Westwood by former Executive Director Pat Larkin.
“The regional group looked into what might be done for senior tax relief,” said Fitzgerald. “It started as a task force under MCOA and worked with legislators and assessors, representatives and tax committees from different towns. We looked at ways for seniors to continue to live in their town.”
The Property Tax Taskforce was successful in two important areas of legislation. The efforts increased the income levels for the property tax deferral, which allows more seniors to defer their taxes until the senior moves or the house is sold and lowering the age requirement from 65 to 60 years of age for tax deferral or exemption qualification.
“We worked closely with Senator (Cynthia) Creem on these tax relief efforts when she was co-chair of the joint revenue committee in the legislature,” said Fitzgerald as she explained the coming together of municipalities, town officials and state politicians.
The efforts of the group resulted in exemptions created under Massachusetts General Law, under Clause 41 which provides “exemptions to seniors who meet specific ownership, residency, income and asset requirements.”
“Clause 41C, the senior tax exemption, started at $350, went to $500 and a town or city can opt to increase it to $1,000,” explained Fitzgerald. “The city or town sets the exemption levels, so it varies by community.”
Another benefit area seniors have received from Fitzgerald’s task force efforts includes the Senior Circuit Breaker, which provides senior residents with either a tax credit or with actual cash reimbursement for those that are eligible.
“I’d love to say we (Property Tax Taskforce) had some influence on the Circuit Breaker,” said Fitzgerald. “What helps is that it allows the towns to offer this benefit without a negative impact on the town’s finances, as is it’s paid for by the state, so it doesn’t cost the city or town directly.”
The Future of Senior Centers
The Sharon center is now receiving visitors that have moved to the town from many parts of the world, including new residents from Russia, China and south east Asia. The result has been an expansion of English as a Second Language (ESOL) programs and expanded staff responsibilities.
When asked about future issues of importance for senior centers to continue their mission, Fitzgerald says transportation remains at the top of the list. “We need to look at what can we do to improve transportation, including services between towns and in town.”
Housing expense and shortages are also frequent problems visitors bring with them to a senior center, often looking for assistance or guidance on what help is available.
Fitzgerald notes zoning issues covering the addition of “in-law” units to existing homes and the need for accessible units as priority issues.
“We worked with town departments to better understand how this might work, addressing water usage and other concerns town officials have with home additions,” said Fitzgerald. “We need to continue to make Sharon more age friendly.”
“We are now known as the adult center, not senior center,” said Fitzgerald. “We have created extensive policy and procedure manuals that are important to carry on the programs that have been established. I am proud of the services and programs, with their huge and diverse offerings, we have set up.”
Fitzgerald is also proud of the center’s ability to communicate with the towns seniors, including print and web information that has been developed during her tenure. She also believes that future leaders will need to be able to communicate effectively with patrons, town officials and state leaders as an important ingredient in the continued growth of local senior centers and an ability to keep up with changes demands.
“It always str
uck me that years and years ago, people would describe the Council on Aging as the focal point of the community,” said Fitzgerald. “But I wondered how this could be. We were in one room, providing social services, helping people with rents, housing questions and service requests with a staff of just 1.5 people, me full time and a staff member part time.”
“It has become a focal point now and we are very fortunate to have a place that is appealing and the ability to provide the programs our community needs,” said Fitzgerald.
These retiring visionaries of senior service requirements have laid a great foundation for these ‘adult’ centers to continue to play an integral part in the well-being of their town’s older adults. The new generation will do well to follow the shining example of these retiring leaders.