Survey finds better communication, programs would boost South County Senior Center

  • Caitlin Coyle, a research fellow with the University of Massachusetts Boston, delivers a presentation Thursday afternoon on the results of a survey conducted among Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately residents about their needs and desires for the South County Senior Center. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Caitlin Coyle, a research fellow with the University of Massachusetts Boston, delivers a presentation Thursday afternoon on the results of a survey conducted among Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately residents about their needs and desires for the South County Senior Center. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2022 8:59:46 AM

WHATELY — Following the results of a senior center needs assessment conducted by the University of Massachusetts Boston, town officials see an opportunity to better market the South County Senior Center and the programs it has to offer.

Nearly 1,400 residents of Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately participated in the survey conducted by UMass Boston’s Center for Social & Demographic Research in Aging Gerontology Institute, which asked residents ages 50 and older their desires and needs in a senior center and what could be added or changed to encourage them to attend the center over the coming years.

Caitlin Coyle, a research fellow with UMass Boston, delivered the presentation at Whately Town Hall on Thursday, going over the results with seniors and town officials. The two biggest takeaways, Coyle said, are the need to increase awareness of the South County Senior Center’s programming and the addition of more physically and intellectually stimulating programs.

“There’s a huge opportunity here,” Coyle said. “What I heard from respondents is they want lifelong learning.”

Whately Select Board Chairman and member of the Senior Center Board of Oversight member Jonathan Edwards said the survey clearly laid out what people want in a senior center and that this is a chance to “integrate” seniors of all ages, which includes the full range of people from those ages 65 and under, who may not visit the Senior Center currently but may in the future, to people older than 85.

“Opportunity is the theme. … It’s an opportunity to begin to plan for a center that meets the needs” of seniors, Edwards said, “as opposed to defining the wants and needs of the center.”

Coyle said “demand for senior center programs and services is expected to escalate in the coming years” as the region’s population continues to age. Coyle noted “South County is older than the state of Massachusetts” with 25% of the region’s population being in the 60 to 79 age range, compared to the state’s 19%.

“People are living longer and they’re aging in community longer,” she said. “All those things together create this growth in the older generation.”

The survey found 56% of respondents only attend the South County Senior Center once or twice a year, with many people saying they are either unaware or do not feel a need to go to the Senior Center, which Coyle indicated many in the community have a “sentiment of not needing the Senior Center.”

“You don’t have to have a need to participate, but that seems to be the perception in the community,” Coyle said.

Senior Center Director Jennifer Remillard said this survey was a good start in figuring out how to address participation through communication.

“This gives all three communities a starting point in finding a way to address all these concerns,” Remillard said. “There’s a lot of services that many people don’t understand are available to them.”

Despite varying levels of participation, more than 60% of respondents said they do view the Senior Center as playing a role in their lives or in the lives of someone they know, with Coyle noting “more than a majority of people do find it to be a valuable asset.”

This valuable asset needs a space, however, and the Senior Center is in the early steps of planning for a long-term location. Currently, it rents a room from the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in South Deerfield after an environmental assessment of the South County Senior Center found asbestos, lead paint and mold in the 90-year-old building. Renovation plans to use the South Deerfield Congregational Church as a long-term temporary location are underway.

“Space does actually matter when increasing the likelihood of participation,” Coyle said. “The physical space and programming of the South County Senior Center does not currently meet the needs of the range of ages and interests. … Not a lot of people are using it, but what we heard is there’s a lot of interest. There’s a need out there, but there’s not quite a good fit.”

Edwards agreed with Coyle’s findings, as a new and improved space is integral to the success of the South County Senior Center. This effort will not be easy, though, as Edwards said residents of all three towns need to get behind the effort or it will stall.

“It is going to be incumbent on the seniors to really get behind a center politically. This won’t happen if the seniors don’t coalesce behind it,” Edwards noted. “(South County EMS) was a big political lift and this will be a political lift.”

 


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