Montclair, NJ – More than 60 Montclair residents gathered Tuesday afternoon to address issues facing seniors in Montclair. One of the biggest? That Montclair’s seniors, or third agers, who make up 26% of the Township’s population, feel largely ignored.
Montclair Gateway to Aging In Place (MGAP) hosted the meeting; MGAP’s president Ann Lippel led a presentation, followed by breakout groups to discuss key issues. MGAP also shared its own petition to Montclair Town Council to make “Montclair Age Friendlier!
“Almost every town around us has a senior center, and here we are, one of the most affluent towns in New Jersey, and we don’t have a senior center,” said one participant.
The lack of a senior center was just one of many issues residents want to see addressed.
“What we’re doing here today is not just for us. It’s really to enlighten and awaken the people in our leadership that, they too, are going to be in this third age,” said Lippel. “We are not interested in removing money from the school system, from the fire department, from the police department. We want town leadership to figure out how to bring budget equity to our cohort.”
Lippel shared how seniors are reliable voters and account for 40 to 50% of Montclair’s municipal vote turnout.
“If the seniors get together on issues and vote what’s in their best interest, we’ll win the election. This is at the heart of what we are hoping to do,” said Lippel. “When the next budget hearings occur, I don’t want to hear the Director of Health and Human Services asking for money for the animal shelter and not asking for money for seniors.”
The loss and then absence of a full time director for Montclair senior services has hurt advocacy as well as communication, not just to seniors, but between the different organizations that serve them. In 2022, Lippel said the Township discontinued senior citizen roundtables that had served to give feedback to the town on issues including transportation.
Another breakdown in communication came in February 2022, when the Township, says Lippel, attempted to reorganize the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee (SCAC) and its bylaws.
“The Senior Citizens Advisory Committee was supposed to be your representative to the Town Council,” said Lippel during her presentation. “SCAC was charged with being the feedback loop for all things that had to do with seniors all over town. But in 2022, the township wanted to strike that out of the bylaws. And what happened is, all the current members resigned. So right now there’s a Senior Citizens Advisory Committee with no members.”
Seniors experienced another loss, says Lippel, when a third Partners for Health grant for a social worker expired, and the Township failed to pick up the case worker’s salary.
During reports from the breakout sessions, participants spoke of how the lack of social work services has impacted seniors’ mental health and social isolation, something that was already exacerbated during the pandemic.
Prioritizing A Senior Center
Discussions of a senior center in Montclair have a long history. There was grant money in 2009 and a SCAC-proposed senior center at the old DCH site, but that site ended up becoming Valley and Bloom. There was also an attempt to purchase the Senior Care Services building in 2010, but the council ultimately did not support it. The possibility of a senior center was again raised at community forums in 2015.
In 2017, there was a resolution affirming the Township’s “commitment to establish a comprehensive senior center,.” In 2020, there was an opportunity to use the first floor of the Mills Memorial Social Services Building (also known as the United Way building), but those plans also fell through at the last minute.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the limitations of the clubhouse at Edgemont Park, originally proposed as a temporary senior center, were raised. The building is not large, so programs are limited to only a small percentage of residents. The kitchen is also not equipped for serving congregant meals. The Edgemont House also has the limited circular drive parking (with only 12 parking spots) that poses a problem for buses, who have to discharge passengers on busy Valley Road. Michelle DeWitt, Montclair Institute for Lifelong Learning coordinator, said 20-22 people is about the most the Edgemont Park facility can accommodate. Both DeWitt and Councilor Peter Yacobellis participated in breakout groups at the meeting.
There were also questions about Essex County’s new expanded Wally Choice Community Center at Glenfield Park, but residents said that parking was limited there, too, and the building was currently shared by several groups. Others wanted a senior center more centrally located in the Township.
Other issues raised by representatives in the breakout groups were the need for pedestrian safety, especially adequate crossings in locations where there is existing senior housing, as well as better public transportation, such as a town bus, that could benefit all residents and alleviate some traffic.
One step in the right direction, Lippel said, was a collaboration with Montclair Schools Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds to have intergenerational programs.
“We did a pilot project with Edgemont School, which was very successful. We’re hoping to grow that project,” said Lippel. She also spoke of the partnership between Montclair Public Schools and Hackensack Meridian Mountainside Medical Center to provide free health screenings and more for all Montclair residents at Hillside and Glenfield schools.
“We’ve got a huge amount of wisdom in this room from all economic, all gender and all race backgrounds,” said Lippel. “We’ve got to share that wisdom and find a way to make people listen.”
“What I took away from the session, besides a need for us to listen more and get serious about a senior center, is that we have to hire a social services coordinator to work in our Health Department and directly with the Senior Services team,” said Yacobellis. “There is a huge piece of work missing in our town, connecting seniors in need to resources that are available.”
To learn more and get involved, visit Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place and sign the petition to Montclair Town Council to make “Montclair Age Friendlier!