Two senior centers in Collier County fill voids with social activities
Every week day, Luz Costa catches the public bus near Goodlette Arms Apartments in Naples to ride east to the Golden Gate Senior Center.
The 72-year-old enjoys the hot lunches five days a week and activities that range from bingo to exercise classes. But the camaraderie is the main attraction.
“For me, it’s like a medicine,” Costa said. “I am so happy.”
Costa moved to Naples a year ago from Miami. A friend of a friend told her about the Golden Gate Senior Center at 4898 Coronado Parkway. It has 1,200 members, many of whom moved to Naples to be near adult children or for a slower pace of life compared to when they lived in Miami, New York and elsewhere.
Eva Serrano, 77, lives in a 55-and-older community, but her friendships were forged at the center.
“It gives me something to do because I’m lonely,” the native New Yorker said. “I like to meet people of different nationalities.”
Since opening in 2014, the Golden Gate Senior Center has been a vital link to residents 60 and older to maintain physical and emotional well-being with hot lunches five days a week and resources for social services.
A food pantry operated by the local charity, Meals of Hope, is on site. About 75 percent of members are low- to moderate-income residents, and all services, including lunch, are free.
A helping hand: Golden Gate Senior Center fills a host of needs
Having a place to go for socializing, especially for seniors who live alone, is crucial, said Jim Barton, chairman of Collier Senior Resources, the charitable organization that operates the center.
“Loneliness is a disease, and if you don’t have something to do, a place to go, you become nonproductive,” Barton said. “Once you get there to associate with others, it’s wonderful to see. They love it. It’s like a religion.”
September is National Senior Center month to recognize the critical role fulfilled by 11,000 senior centers across the U.S., according to the National Council on Aging.
Naples Senior Center
Collier County has one other dedicated senior center open to anyone. The Naples Senior Center at JFCS opened in 2014 at 5025 Castello Drive. Today it has 1,400 members.
“The main difference is that our senior center is part of a broader social service organization,” said Jaclynn Faffer, president and CEO of the center. “We have the capability of providing a variety of services.”
That includes dementia respite support, geriatric case management, mental health counseling, a food pantry, and a full calendar of social activities. Lunch is served one day a week, on Wednesdays. The annual budget is $2.7 million and there are 17 employees, she said.
Barton said there is little overlap, if any, of seniors going to both centers. The Golden Gate center has a lot of people of Latino backgrounds born in Puerto Rico, Cuba or South America, he said.
Faffer agrees the two centers don’t overlap.
When the Naples Senior Center opened, about 60 percent of members had incomes at or below the federal poverty level, Faffer said. That percentage has dropped to 40 percent, Faffer said.
“More people are coming here because of isolation and loneliness and the need for vibrant services,” Faffer said. “We serve everyone. It’s just a different population.”
In 2012, Collier Senior Resources sponsored the creation of the Leadership Coalition on Aging, which embarked on a needs assessment with Florida Gulf Coast University. The study found widespread gaps in services for residents 60 and older, especially for lower-income seniors. Those gaps put seniors at risk of their basic needs for food, shelter and medical care not being met.
In 2016, about 36 percent of Collier’s population was 60 or older, or roughly 123,000 people, according to the Area Agency on Aging. The University of Florida projects the state population of elders will increase 69 percent in the 20-year period from 2010 to 2030.
Living her best life: North Naples woman celebrates more than 100 years of life
The Naples Senior Center last year updated the needs assessment with FGCU, and found the increasing population of seniors also means more are living in poverty, a 29 percent increase from 2011 to 2015. The highest tract of impoverished seniors live in the Naples area between U.S. 41 and Collier Boulevard, with the exception of Immokalee and the Marco Island/Goodland region.
Focus group sessions identified physical health, loneliness, boredom, hardships performing everyday activities, financial problems, being a caretaker and food insecurity as problematic or older residents,
“Seniors feel they are not on the agenda of the community,” Faffer said.
The Golden Gate Senior Center operates on a shoestring budget of $300,000 a year, all from grants and donations, and collaboration with social service organizations to provide program support, Barton said.
“My guess us we get between six to 10 grants a year, it varies every year but there is no state funding,” he said.
The hot lunch program is operated by Collier County through federal funding, and Catholic Charities handles the center’s office functions. The senior center has four employees, including director Tatiana Fortune, and 50 volunteers.
“We do a lot with a little,” Fortune said. “It’s very rewarding.”
In the summer months, 60 to 80 members come daily for the hot lunch served weekdays and the volume will increase in the busier winter months, Fortune said.
“They need a place to socialize. This is a welcoming environment,” she said.
She can’t estimate for how members the hot lunch is their only hot meal of the day, but food insecurity is certainly an issue. The Meals of Hope food pantry addresses a critical need.
A “direct assistance program” of one-time financial help for rent, utilities, prescriptions, or similar needs was launched in January. To date, 94 members have been helped, with the maximum amount of $300, said Maritza Irizarry, the center’s case worker.
To David Vega, the exchange of ideas with friends at the center is just as important as the hot lunch. They purposely don’t talk about politics.
“We talk about how the world has changed, and how everybody changes as we get older,” Vega, 70, said.
He walks the quarter mile to the center and then later walks around a nearby shopping center for daily exercise. He cooks dinner at home for himself.
“My mother taught me how to cook,” he said. “Spanish food mostly.”
For more information about the Golden Gate Senior Center, call 239-252-4541; the Naples Senior Center can be reached at 239-325-4444.