In a quiet voice Margaret Miele stood before the Montclair Township Council on Tuesday night, March 14, and laid out in plain language the difficulties that often come with aging and the pressing need for a full-time social worker to assist senior residents in Montclair. 

“You know, getting old is not for sissies," Miele said. "People in this town are suffering financially. Inflation is causing food insecurity, as we've heard, not only for young people, but particularly older people. Rent is going up. taxes are going up. People can't afford to stay in their homes.”

And it is not just about finances, she said. 

“People getting older face emotional problems,” she said. “They lose partners, they lose children. They lose their best friends, they lose their support network, and they don't know what to do. They become anxious, they become depressed and they need help.” 

The council did not require much persuasion. In a unanimous vote, it approved the hiring of a full-time social worker, creating a new salaried position in the township’s Department of Health and Human Services. 

Advocates have labored to draw attention to Montclair’s older residents, calling for a new senior center, more targeted money in the township’s budget and for a new director of senior services, a position that has gone unfilled for more than a year. With the Tuesday night action, they could claim a victory. 

Council members took the vote wearing “Making Montclair Age-Friendlier” buttons, a gift cheerfully distributed to them earlier in the evening by Ellie Bagli, a board member with Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place, an organization that has pushed for action.

While recognizing that all residents could benefit from a full-time social worker, she said it was a “particularly important resource for older residents.”

Bagli talked about a man who had become homeless, not understanding how to go online to claim Social Security benefits or claim his pension. If, Bagli said, a municipal social worker had been in place to advise him, he likely would not have lost his home in the first place.

“The point is that people's lives are at stake,” she said.

The resolution to hire a social worker was put forth by Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo and Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, with Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams also leading the effort among Montclair’s elected officials. 

Seniors in Montclair make up over 25% of our population,” Russo said in a text message. “But our funding for senior services is less than 1% of own township budget. The addition of at least one professional social worker to respond to requests for advice, direction and assistance is long overdue. I thank my colleagues for supporting this commitment of funds, but I want to be sure this new social worker staff is hired ASAP, without any normal bureaucratic delay. Seniors have asked for this support in an office which has been operating with only two employees for the last year.” 

He added that Montclair residents “deserve a senior center, which almost all other towns provide in Essex County.” 

In a statement after the vote, Yacobellis said, "Tonight we delivered on a promise.” 

“Finally we’re shifting some budget dollars into human services to boost quality of life for seniors, people with disabilities and others who struggle,” he said.

Ann Lippel, the Montclair Gateway president, said that to her knowledge Montclair has never had a full-time social worker. A part-time social worker position, privately funded for six years, has been vacant since 2020.

Lippel, who has made persistence around issues affecting senior residents her hallmark, watched and listened as the council members heartily endorsed the measure. She and others cheered when the vote was final. She was still exultant a day later. 

“The Town Council, wearing our Making Montclair Age-Friendlier buttons last night actually took a giant step toward making our town friendlier by unanimously passing a resolution to create a salaried social worker position in the Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Senior Services," she said. "We could not have arrived at this moment without the focused advocacy of all of our Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place ambassadors, our community partners and supporters.” 

She and others were buoyed by word from Acting Township Manager Brian Scantlebury that the township had posted the opening for Senior Services director on various job sites. Since Katie York left in March 2021, the job has been vacant. 

Miele, the first speaker in Tuesday night’s public comments before the vote was taken, quickly had the council and a filled chamber in rapt attention. She said she is a retired clinical social worker and social work administrator. 

“For a town of this size and complexity, it's really unconscionable not to have a social worker in our town,” she said. “I'm begging you to do this. It's the right thing.”