Some 90 people turned up at Palm Coast City Hall this morning for a meeting organized by the city to hear directly from older residents about what services they want. Representatives from ElderSource, the non-profit that contracts and monitors elderly services in the region, facilitated the meeting, which was organized by the city’s leisure advisory committee and Alex Boyer, the city’s parks and recreation director. They heard plenty to fill scrolls of pages in a couple of writing boards set up for the occasion.
None of the proposals were new, and many recurred this morning as they have for years: senior centers. Transportation. Occasions to meet new people. Senior centers. Art and language classes. Health and tax clinics, help with Medicare and insurance. Senior centers. A pro bono system that would help older residents on fixed income with such things as handyman services, a newsletter that would help the elderly interconnect. And of course senior centers—or at least one designated senior center.
The other central issue—or problem—that emerged out of this meeting was this: a lack of communications. Some people were unaware of the existence of such things as the city’s leisure services committee, or its web calendar, for example. ‘Everybody gets their water bill, so let’s at least put a page in there of what’s going on,” one woman suggested (though the city is trying to get away from paper-based billing, which is costly.)
There was no question that the issue is commanding attention and interest: it’s not often that a community meeting draws close to 100 people in the middle of a weekday morning—at least not when the issue relates to a sudden cost increase, an unwanted development or the controversy of the moment. But the meeting also drew out a stream of complaints that in Palm Coast, whenever talk has turned to seniors’ concerns, it’s never gone much further than talk. The undercurrent to many comments was a sense of being ignored or patronized–listened to, yes, but only up to a point.
There was the occasionally disturbing claim, as when Mayme Casady spoke of meeting with Jim Landon, the city manager, to talk about elderly issues two years ago—when she and 18 people met with him. “I asked him, do you know how many senior centers there are in St. Augustine? His answer was no, and I don’t care,” she said, concluding: “I’ve gone to meeting after meeting after meeting and we’re still talking about the same thing.” Landon’s reported contempt would not be a surprise to anyone who’s experienced his clumsy, often insulting demeanor in his interactions with the public. It may also explain at least a measure of the city’s perceived indifference to elderly concerns.
On the other hand, today’s meeting may also signal a shift. “You’re not going to go to this effort and get this kind of feedback and get somebody to facilitate and not take it seriously,” says Bryan Hensley, ElderSource’s director of planning and programs, who facilitated the meeting. He said it was the city, through Boyer, that approached ElderSource, initiating the effort, not the other way around. That shows at least the intent to get something accomplished, in Hensley’s view.
“There’s clearly some frustration, and Alex understands that,” Hensley said of Boyer after the meeting. “He’s trying to do what’s in his purview to do something about it.”
Boyer said the city is planning ahead so as to have programs in place when the rebuilt community center opens in about nine months–an indication that Palm Coast may want to blunt criticism of a lack of a designated senior center with richer programs on offer that could render moot the need for such a center.
Half an hour into the meeting, Josephine Zanella, who’d attended many Palm Coast council meetings, said she’d heard many similar proposals before. “Everybody listens to us, but nobody does anything,” Zanella said. She came from a town with five senior centers within a five-mile radius, with numerous services, from health clinics to clubs. In Palm Coast, she said, back at the community center, when she’d attend some activities, she and her friends would be forced to put out the tables and put them back when they were done. “We don’t want to do that. We’re 80 years old. We’re retired,” she said. She also spoke about the need for transportation. “We don’t want to drive, cause accidents. So I beg of you to listen to us. We ae the forgotten.”
But there was also another recurring echo to the requests, demands and complaints: several people spoke of many existing services, activities and organizations, scattered though they may be, whether at the public library or other government buildings, churches or Florida Hospital Flagler, which has or hosts several elderly-focused programs. The problem, many people said, is a lack of communication and coordination. A lot may be happening, but many people are unaware.
“There’s so much in Palm Coast that we offer,” Bernie Kershner, a member of the city’s leisure services committee, told the crowd. He suggested looking up the city’s web-based calendar. “You’ve got to get out there and find out what’s going on. This meeting is one of the best way for us to voice our opinion, and if you think nothing is going to happen, then you’re being a little negative.”
“I have to say, I never heard that we had that committee,” a woman said after Kershner said. “There’s something wrong with the communications.”
To be better informed, people suggested mailers, television, a “senior section on the city’s website”—or on this site–and, oddly, establishing a newspaper focused on the elderly: several times, people said the city had no newspaper it could call its own, two weekly newspapers that are “wobbling along, trying to make an effort.” Aynne McAvoy offered to continue this meeting through Facebook for everyone, going as far as offering to set up a Facebook page for the collective.
But there was also a degree of unawareness. “I’m amazed at what happens here,” a woman said. “Adult Education. Absolutely essential. We have no adult education in this community. It’s a shame.” But there is adult education: the school district runs an entire division focused on that. The same woman said “the government” should have a committee of seniors to tell the government what’s needed. That’s what the city’s leisure services committee, which organized today’s meeting, is about.
A woman said she’d just lost her husband to Alzheimer’s. She wanted to know where she could go to meet people. Joanne Gracie-Campos, the organizer of the Sunshine Social Club said she had 100 members right now. “Unfortunately I can’t accept more, we have limited room” where the meetings are held. She wanted to know how her organization would be able to use the city’s community center, and when she said, “we need a designated senior center,” the room erupted in brief applause for the first (and what would be the last) time this morning.
“Regardless of facility,” Linda Levin, executive director of ElderSource said, hoping to steer the discussion away from the issue of senior centers, “what is the programming want?” She spoke of the desire for socialization programs, the opportunity to meet people, having a kitchen, cooking, eating, dining. “What we want to hear is what do you want in the way of activities.”
When a woman said “transportation,” several “yes” were heard scattered across the room.
She said she was “appalled” that people are unable to get elderly day care because of waiting lists or unable to get meals on wheels. “That’s unfathomable in this day and age, in this community, with the wealth that we have,” she said.
A man read from a list of needs he’d written up: Card and game opportunities, language classes, beginning painting classes, low-cost food, access to outside agencies on a periodic basis such as the hospital, the assisted living facilities, tax assistance, insurance and Medicare assistance. If those services were to be provided, the man said, “I don’t want to have to drive all over town to 16 different places to get them. And you can’t provide me with the transportation to do that.”
A woman spoke of the struggle to live on Social Security in Palm Coast, and the need for people in the community “who are willing to provide pro bono services.” She did not mean legal services, but handyman-type “Mr. fix it” services. That got a swell of approval.
Time would pass, people would make more proposals, and again, someone would say: “The time has come. We do need a senior center.”
Perhaps some of the people in the room remembered the last time Palm Coast directly addressed the matter of senior centers: in 2005, the city held a referendum on building two senior centers, but at a cost: the referendum was asking voters whether they’d approve the bonds necessary to finance the program. The bonds would have raised taxes. The referendum failed with 60 percent of voters against.
The meeting began to lose steam and audience members at the 60-minute mark, though it went on after that for another 30 minutes.
“This is just the first step,” Boyer, the city’s parks and recreation director, said, with another such meeting quite possible, and a discussion of topics discussed today at the Sept. 13 meeting of the leisure services committee.