Cambridge Council on Aging a Lifeline for Seniors

You Chul, left, a resident of Arlington, and Christine Spacone, 64, a resident of Boston, practice tango steps at the ballroom dancing event on March 19 at the Citywide Senior Center in Cambridge. Chul said he met a lot of friends by participating in the dancing group at the center. Photo by Yaochi Fu/BU News Service.

By Yaochi Fu
BU News Service 

This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle

Located across from the Cambridge City Hall in Central Square, the Cambridge Council on Aging (COA) is the backbone for the elder service provision in the city and the surrounding area with its programs, primarily through its senior centers.

“It’s important to get the word out,” said Susan Pacheco, executive director of COA, at the March 1 town meeting at the Citywide Senior Center.

Twenty seniors attended the monthly meeting, where they heard updates on the center’s projects and events from COA employees.

Pacheco said people often confuse senior centers with nursing homes when, in fact, they’re different.

Under the guidance of COA, part of the Cambridge Department of Human Service Programs, the center is the major force in the city’s elder-care service system.

In addition to services that help seniors find the proper care or housing, the center provides a variety of recreational and educational activities such as fitness class and computer labs.

“There are currently about 16,338 individuals living in Cambridge that are over 60,” Pacheco said, citing statistics from the gerontology program at UMass-Boston.

That’s more than 15 percent of the city’s population.

With this growing aging population in mind, COA’s priority is the “creation of community,” she added. “We want to provide the elderly with a place they can feel safe and socially connected while accessing services if they need.”

Who are the seniors at the Center?

Arthur Outerbridge, an 84-year-old resident of Central Square, has been a regular visitor since 2002. He said he comes to play pool every weekday. Although he knows about the other activities, he does not participate in them often.

“Playing pool is all I do here,” he said while he playing with his friend in the pool room. “It helps you train your mind.”

Outerbridge has worked since he was young, he said. He still delivers packages in his neighborhood as a part-time job and added that either playing pool or delivering packages helps him keep up his physical and mental health.

“You just need some outlets,” he said.

Anthony Ward Gigante, 78, is another pool player at the center. He thinks of the activity as a way to socialize and enrich his life. A long-time resident of Kendall Square, Gigante takes two walks – back and forth between his house and the center – four days a week.

“I think coming to the Senior Center helps seniors avoid being isolated,” he said.

Many other classes and activities that the center offers connect seniors with each other, too.

Shengshi Jun, 58, is a volunteer who teaches Mandarin and helps run events.

“Most of the people come every Monday just for a few hours of dancing because they are only interested in dancing,” Jun said as she watched a group of 30 elders dancing in pairs in the ballroom.

Most of those in the group are Asians.

You Chul, 70, a resident of Arlington, is from Korea and is one of many active participants at Monday’s ballroom dancing sessions. Chul said he has made lots of friends by participating in the dancing group.

Funding the COA

COA offered 170 hours of recreational and educational classes and special events in 2016. This number is expected to increase to 220 hours in 2018, according to Cambridge’s annual budget for 2017-18.

“Our services have very much increased,” Pacheco confirmed, but said the COA is still underfunded.

The COA receives funding through the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs based on U.S. Census figures, Pacheco said. For fiscal 2018, the COA currently receives $140,941 from the state office. However, this amount was based on the 2010 Census, which found 14,530 people over age 60 living in the city. For every person, COA received $9.70.

“We know we have well over 16,000 seniors, but we can only work with the number that is recorded,” said Pacheco.

She said she hopes the center’s funding will grow to $12 per elder by 2020 through a reimbursement campaign, with help from the Massachusetts Council on Aging.

Although getting more funding from the state would be ideal, Pacheco said she considers herself lucky to be working in Cambridge, which is the agency’s main funder.

“The city is very supportive of senior programs,” she said, noting that the COA received $1,418,895 for fiscal 2018.

In addition to seeking more funding, Pacheco said that she and her colleagues are always working to bring more seniors into the center, especially the ones who are “reclusive.”

“We need to figure out how we can find and attract them,” Pacheco said. “I want people to truly understand there are resources out there for them.”

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