Northampton Senior Center members sound off, director responds 

  • A meeting with the Council On Aging at the Northampton Senior Center Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marie Westburg, the director of the Northampton Senior Center, listens as seniors speak out about the center and her leadership during a Council on Aging meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marlene Marrocco, a former Council on Aging member, speaks about her dissatisfaction with the Northampton Senior Center during a meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rita Bouthilette speaks about her dissatisfaction with the Northampton Senior Center during a Council of Aging meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marie Westburg, the director of the Northampton Senior Center, listens as seniors speak out about the center and her leadership during a Council on Aging meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rita Bouthilette speaks about her dissatisfaction with the Northampton Senior Center during a Council on Aging meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marie Westburg, the director of the Northampton Senior Center, listens as seniors speak out about the center and her leadership during a Council on Aging meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Peter Jones speaks about the tension and unrest at the Northampton Senior Center during a Council on Aging meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ann Howell speaks about her dissatisfaction with and the tension she feels at the Northampton Senior Center during a Council on Aging meeting at the Senior Center on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kimberly Lambert speaks about the tension she feels at the Northampton Senior Center during a Council on Aging meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Peter Jones speaks about the tension and unrest at the Northampton Senior Center during the COA meeting Thursday, November 14, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kimberly Lambert speaks Thursday about the tension she feels at the Northampton Senior Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marie Westburg, the director of the Northampton Senior Center, at a Council On Aging meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/18/2019 4:25:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Bridge club banned. Exercise class prices hiked. And no more candy sold in the cafe. These are some of the complaints members have aired about recent changes at the Senior Center.

“At our age,” said Elaine Williams, who was displeased about the cafe cuts, “sometimes you need a chocolate bar to get through.”

Williams was one of more than 50 people who filled a room at the Senior Center on Thursday afternoon for a Council on Aging meeting. About 15 seniors in the crowd spoke during the meeting’s public comment period and took issue with what many of them said was poor communication by the director, Marie Westburg, among other problems.

“We have a vested interest in our Senior Center,” said senior Nancy Duseau. “Many people in this room helped build this building.”

It used to be a happy place, she said, but now, “we don’t feel this place is our happy place.” A letter to the Gazette that more than 50 other seniors, including Duseau, signed expressed similar sentiments. As Duseau sees it, the central issue is communication with seniors. “We’d like to help fix that if we can,” she said.

After the room applauded Duseau, Gerriann Butler, council chairwoman, told the seniors to hold their applause for speakers. But after many of the seniors spoke, the crowd clapped anyway.

The council is an advisory board, and the mayor has governance power over the director position. “We don’t have governance power over the Senior Center. We serve to advise,” council member Jeanne Hoose told the seniors.

When Duseau came back to Northampton in the spring after spending several months in Florida,​ “the whole center was in a state of turmoil. People were complaining,” she told the Gazette. In April, she shared her concerns with Mayor David Narkewicz, and a week later, Duseau said, Westburg called her and “​​​​scolded me for going to speak to the mayor.”

“We feel like we get scolded like schoolchildren,” she said.

Westburg told the Gazette that she did call Duseau, but she said it was to ask, “Why didn’t you call me directly? Because I would like to have the conversation with you rather than going to the mayor.”

At the meeting, some seniors said they didn’t feel listened to by the center’s administration. “They don’t want to know what our needs are … You don’t bother to ask,” said Susan Martins, addressing the council. The center is a “very important” piece of her life, she said, adding that it has changed for the worse.

“It was a nice place to be,” Martins said. “It doesn’t feel that way at all anymore. There aren’t people enjoying the place. Nobody enjoys it anymore.”

After the meeting, Rita Bouthillette said she went to the mayor’s office with a letter signed by a number of seniors requesting a meeting to discuss these issues. On Monday morning, she said she was still waiting for a response.

When asked about his next steps on Monday afternoon, Narkewicz said, “I do want to allow the Council on Aging to have an opportunity to process all the info that they received from the public last week and give them the opportunity to speak to that at the next meeting.”

“I support Director Westburg, and I support the Council on Aging,” he added. “I’m hopeful and confident they will take those concerns they are hearing and work with the director to address them.”

‘Punitive governance’

One attendee, Stanley Maron, had no major complaints about the new leadership at the Senior Center. “I’m quite satisfied with what’s being provided,” he said, mentioning the free pool and other activities. “So, thank you.”

The former director of the Williamsburg Senior Center, Westburg was appointed to the Northampton director position by Narkewicz last year. Her hiring created controversy at the time because some people felt Heather Cahillane, the senior services assistant director, should have gotten the job instead. Cahillane subsequently resigned her position.

A campaign was launched to get Westburg’s appointment rejected by the City Council so that Cahillane’s candidacy could be reconsidered but the effort failed and the council unanimously confirmed Westburg’s appointment on May 3, 2018.

Westburg pointed out to the Gazette that membership has grown, even though volunteer numbers have decreased slightly and there has been turnover in the staff. In fiscal year 2017, before Westburg became the director, the center had 1,724 members; in fiscal year 2019, membership rose to 2,267.

Despite the growth, many seniors said they feel mistreated by management. Some members echoed Duseau’s sentiment that seniors are treated like children. There’s a “punishing atmosphere” at the center and a focus on rules, said Kimberly Lambert. “There’s punitive governance.”

Like Williams, Sharon Martula is upset about cuts to the cafe offerings — soda and candy are no longer available. “We who have lived long lives apparently can’t make food choices for ourselves anymore,” she wrote in a letter to the editor recently published in the Gazette. “I have to wonder how we’ve muddled through long lives without this food management.”

Westburg said the changes in the cafe were made to provide healthier options, and the center added a chef who makes, among other foods, baked goods. “We tried to get rid of the things that were really high sugar,” she said. “We still have granola bars and peppermint patties. But I’m willing to be flexible and add more snacks.”

Speaking of flexibility, Diane Liebert said that administrative changes have been made to exercise classes without clear communication with participants. In a recent letter to the mayor, she wrote, “there’s no written explanation of how to get reimbursed when one is sick — someone who was in the hospital had a lot of difficulty getting credit for classes missed.”

The prices for preregistered classes have increased from $2 to $3, Westburg said. “When I came on, I realized that we weren’t actually covering the cost of the instructor, so I raised it to $3,” she told the Gazette. Drop-in fees were always $5, she said, but only recently started being enforced at the front desk.

Still, the price increases are “a hardship for some,” said Lorraine Zalesky, who has been going to a low-impact exercise class for 10 years.

Westburg said that the center recently surveyed the seniors about fitness offerings and is now looking into options that are more flexible than preregistering for classes and still fiscally sound. “We’ve been asking for input, and we’ve been taking it all into account,” she said.

In the meeting after public comment, Westburg said she is creating a binder of frequently asked questions for the center and starting monthly coffee sessions for people to meet with her this week. “I’m very available for people to talk,” she said. “No one’s actually talked to me in person.” On Monday morning, she held her first meeting over coffee with seniors.

Attendance at Thursday’s meeting was much higher than normal, Westburg told the Gazette, and she encouraged people to keep coming to future meetings. “Going to the paper and the mayor isn’t productive,” she said. “Coming to me is the best way to get things resolved — I want to resolve things.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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