Contending that their concerns have been overlooked, their needs poorly funded and their input undervalued for too long, advocates for Montclair
seniors have launched a campaign to attract support for a new plan of action.

It is nothing less than a blitz by Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place — with 5,000 postcards going out in an attempt to recruit a brigade of volunteers and to confront matters that the organization says have gone unaddressed by the town’s elected leaders. 

Attached to the campaign is an urgency created by a growing senior population, Ann Lippel, the Montclair Gateway president, said in issuing a
rallying cry. 

“The older residents of Montclair, more numerous every day as baby boomers retire, need to be visible and vocal in order to obtain the services and support
required for smart and active aging,” Lippel said. 

“What we want to do now is to enlist volunteers from the community. To work for the community, but to work in a way that's going to get the attention of the council members so they can't ignore us anymore.”

Two ongoing issues epitomize the town’s neglect, Lippel and others say – the absence of a Senior Services director for more than a year and a half and a decades-long need for a permanent senior center.

Pure math tells the story, said Ellie Bagli, director of public relations for Montclair Gateway and an advocate for senior rights for many years. The town’s 2022 general budget of about $95 million earmarks nearly $352,000 specifically for senior services. That does not include the share of all town services that seniors benefit from – including emergency services, water, sewer and other utilities.

“People don’t know the big picture,” Bagli said, “that we’re 26% of the population and we get less than 1% of the budget.” 

At stake in the postcard campaign, she said, is something fundamental and critical – to ease the pain of isolation that was compounded by COVID-19. The pandemic curtailed and upended programs that seniors had relied on for years. A bus service that had doubled as a communal space for seniors and those with disabilities was stopped, leaving the town’s senior transportation needs to a partnership already in place with EZ Ride. 

This service links seniors to Uber or Lyft for free shared transportation. While it works well, senior advocates say, the town does a poor job of promoting it, leaving many people unaware that it exists. 

The postcards contain a QR code that gives residents the chance to link to a short signup and survey form on Montclair Gateway’s website and become involved in any of a range of issues – from the performance of the town’s Senior Services Department to the senior center to housing and property taxes. Residents can also reach the organization by phone and email.

Overall, Lippel said, the objective of the campaign and the work of organizations like hers is to fill a gap left by town government. Services for seniors have been splintered, leading to a duplication among organizations and depriving people of a central source of information. Combined with the lack of a sizable and comprehensive facility, seniors have been left without a central gathering place, Lippel said.

“People still want to meet up, and they especially want to meet up for what I would call trusted communication,” she said. “One of the ways that you know that the information you're getting is from a trusted source is you meet a friend in a location and they say: ‘Oh, yeah, I did that too. Yeah, you should check that out.’

“Socialization is especially important for older people.”

The Edgemont Park House has served as Montclair’s de facto senior center since 2015, but the small red brick building has the look more of a caretaker’s home nestled just by the pond. Its greeting area and an activities room has space for about 70. And a semicircular drive in front has just a few parking spaces. 

“Having a single entity is so important because we need to know who we are and help each other,” Lippel said. “The whole idea of aging in place is having this complete network of support.”

Lippel is calling for the creation of a task force to reinvigorate a search for a new senior center. 

Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said he can envision three possible scenarios for a new hub: revisiting the Mills building on South Fullerton Avenue as a possible site, refurbishing the ice rink with a second floor and elevator, or including a senior center in a new complex on Claremont Avenue at the site of the Municipal Building. The Planning Board has voted that the Municipal Building meets state criteria for redevelopment, but a new complex, if ever greenlighted, would be years into the future. 

Yacobellis said information from Montclair Gateway’s survey could help inform how the town reaches a budget.

It comes down to prioritization based on values,” he said.

The hole at the top of Senior Services presents its own saga. The former director, Katie York, hailed by advocates as a stalwart and champion of their concerns, left the job in March 2021. Her departure was followed by the exit of Susan Portuese, the director of Health and Human Services, four months later. 

York’s replacement, Margaret Church, went on medical leave this past spring. Since then the position has gone unfilled, and Church is no longer working for the township. Michelle DeWitt, the coordinator of Senior Services, has been doing double duty in keeping the program
going day to day.

Job interviews and hirings are done by the township manager and Human Resources Department, two vital areas of the government that have been enduring their own turmoil. Township Manager Timothy Stafford is on administrative leave following allegations contained in a lawsuit that he created a “hostile work environment.” And the Human Resources position has gone unfilled since Portuese left.

Acting Township Manager Brian Scantlebury said at a recent Township Council meeting that he had conducted a second interview of a candidate for the vacant Senior Services position and made an offer. But Lippel and three other advocates for seniors – Louella Dudley of the Montclair Aging Advocacy Coalition, Annette Weis of Aging in Montclair and Jim Eason from Do Drop In – wrote to Mayor Sean Spiller last week asking that they and other past members of the council’s now disbanded Senior Citizens Advisory Committee have a voice in the decision. 

Spiller did not respond to an email seeking comment, but the mayor and members of the council are not involved in the hiring process.

Ten of the 12 members of the advisory committee, including Lippel, Dudley, Eason and Bagli, resigned in protest in February, arguing that their influence had been weakened by limitations imposed by the council.

There is a sense of déjà vu surrounding the demands for a fulsome senior center and the broader appeal for attention to the needs of seniors, said Lippel, taking her back decades. She is conscious, she said, of time being precious, that seniors advocating today may not have the luxury to wait for action.

“It just hurts that these people were struggling to find something not for themselves, but for the next generation,” she said, recalling colleagues and neighbors. “And here we are, 10 years later. More than that, 20 years later, and we're still struggling with the same issues.”