As the population ages, Port’s facility for seniors serves a key role in providing services that enrich the lives of city’s oldest residents and the community as a whole
As the American population grows increasingly older, senior centers that provide services ranging from wellness programs to activities that encourage senior citizens to remain active and involved in their communities are more important than ever.
That’s what the experts say, and the importance they place on senior centers should be considered a resounding affirmation of the City of Port Washington’s long-standing policy of providing a facility and programs for senior citizens.
Long before the Baby Boomers began flooding the ranks of senior citizens, Port officials realized the importance of maintaining a center and offering programs for its oldest residents. In 1972, The Port Washington Senior Center was established when the city used money provided by the Older Americans Act to renovate the former firehouse at the corner of Pier and Wisconsin streets.
In 2011, city officials opted to lease the former St. John’s Church on West Foster Street and move the senior center there, a questionable decision that has contributed to the uncertainty surrounding the future of a senior center in Port.
Almost overnight, it seems, City Hall’s attitude toward the Port Senior Center has changed. City Administrator Mark Grams said last month it’s unlikely the city will provide a center after its lease on the former church property expires in two years. A needs assessment has been commissioned to determine what senior services are needed in the future.
While the city’s role in providing future services for senior citizens is nebulous, it’s clear that if it does not provide a senior center as it has for more than 40 years, services for Port Washington’s oldest residents will be greatly diminished at a time when an aging population makes them more important than ever.
Consider that the median age of Ozaukee County residents is 44.5 years — among the oldest in southeastern Wisconsin — and the segment of the county’s population that is 65 and older jumped from 15% in 2000 to nearly 28% in 2010, and it makes the move to abandon the senior center that much more vexing.
Aldermen aren’t questioning the demographics, but the thinking seems to be that future senior citizens won’t need or want a senior center.
Ald. Bill Driscoll, a member of the city’s Commission on Aging and an ad-hoc committee studying the future of senior services, has questioned the need for a center and said alternatives include having seniors share facilities with other organizations or provide their own center.
“I’m 57, and I cannot picture ever going to a senior center,” he said. “I’m very busy, very active. I can’t picture a day when it will be different.”
Driscoll may never darken the doorway of the senior center, but that doesn’t mean others don’t rely on it for everything from a meal site to a place to socialize and participate in a growing number of programs.
The Port Senior Center has 488 members, and the programs it offers have multiplied to include the Green Felt Club pool league, Chicks With Sticks knitting group, exercise and wellness classes, art and craft programs and book clubs.
While the city pays for the center and the salary of a director, seniors pay a membership fee, albeit nominal, and a fee for some programs.
Whether the senior citizens of the future — Baby Boomers who work until later in life and remain active longer — will find value in senior centers is a question that has been asked and answered. Ronald Aday, director of aging studies at Middle Tennessee State University, has concluded that while senior centers must evolve to meet the needs of a changing demographic, they will continue to serve a vital role in providing services such as wellness programs and remain the means by which older adults remain active and engaged in their communities.
The merits of senior centers aside, the city’s current course of action looks a little like an exit strategy. In 2011, with its center in the former firehouse in need of renovation, officials chose the new site in the former church, and not just because officials thought it would be a good facility for seniors.
By agreeing to lease the former church from the owners of Franklin Energy, whose offices were there, the city not only convinced the company to stay in Port but filled vacant office space on the second floor of the downtown Smith Bros. building, which has since been Franklin Energy’s headquarters.
But now, after investing $235,300 to make a former church and office building a senior center, the city is having renters’ remorse. The building, officials have said, is not an ideal facility for a senior center, and the annual rent payment is difficult for some aldermen to abide.
This may be true, but a bad deal for seniors three years ago isn’t reason for the city to abandon its four-decades-long policy of providing a senior center. Instead, confident that tax dollars are well spent on a facility that is important to delivering services that have and will continue to improve the quality of life for a rapidly growing segment of the population and the city as a whole, aldermen should commit to maintaining a Port Senior Center. Then they, with input from senior citizens and others, can decide whether the current facility will do or if it’s time to find a new home for the center.