AGING IN PLACE by Tia Swanson
Working to make SOMA welcoming to all
If mid-morning of a midweek in mid-March is any indication, then Michelle Wesley’s phone rings more or less continuously.
Who said that life slows down as you age?
Wesley is the supervisor of Senior Services in Maplewood, a post she has had for more than a quarter of a century. She started working for the Maplewood Recreation Department as a young twenty-something 33 years ago and is now old enough to take the “Over 55 Fitness” classes her department offers to any older adult who wants to participate.
She spends her days taking calls from, and planning events for, local seniors. It’s a full calendar. Interspersed among the monthly health screenings and nutrition seminars, she arranges holiday lunches, dinner theater excursions and trips to the Shore, which, she jokes, started as walking trips along a boardwalk and are now shopping expeditions.
“I don’t make a ton of money,” she says with a laugh, “but I like what I do.”
On the day in question, she was recovering from the previous afternoon’s St. Patrick’s Day Lunch, for which she had played host to about 50 Maplewood seniors. “That’s still a bit down,” she says. Before the pandemic, the St. Patrick’s lunch routinely drew 80 or so. The pandemic hit seniors hard on multiple fronts. Even those who remained healthy have found their social lives reduced and altered. A significant number of events still happen remotely. But Wesley is working hard to get folks back on board.
She has a second-floor office in the township’s Senior Center, a modest structure next to the Township’s DeHart Community Center on Burnett Avenue. It was originally a home, converted to a church and bought and renovated by the township within the last five years. But its location is convenient. When the group gets too big, the party moves next door, to the larger room in the DeHart Center.
The acquisition of the senior center is part of an ongoing effort by Maplewood to make the town more friendly to aging adults. Over the last six to seven years, urged on by several strong, older women activists, both Maplewood and South Orange have been overhauling township practices to make the communities – lately defined as destination suburbs for young, professional families moving from the city – as places that are welcoming to all ages.
In 2016, thanks to the work of those seniors, the two towns were awarded a grant to establish an organization to oversee the needs, both social and practical, that would allow residents of the two towns to stay and prosper for as long as they want to.
SOMA Two Towns For all Ages, together with the Senior Advisory committees that operate in each municipality, have accomplished a good deal over those five years. Each town now has a full roster of senior classes and activities. Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis, who also is the liaison to the municipality’s senior committee, notes that the two towns have been named “age-friendly” by the AARP, the national organization that advocates on behalf of older adults. And the Grotta Fund, which paid for the first three years of Two Towns’ existence, extended the grant for two years because it was impressed with its results.
There is no denying, however, that both Maplewood and South Orange had work to do. Tonia Moore, who moved to South Orange after her children were grown, remembers attending a municipal meeting not long after she arrived. She happened to sit next to an elderly woman who could neither read the agenda, nor hear what the speakers were saying. “Citizens were being cut off (from participating) as a natural part of aging,” Moore says. “And it didn’t have to be that way.”
Now chair of South Orange’s Senior Advisory Committee, Moore not only continues to advocate on behalf of seniors at the government level, but also teaches several classes devoted to healthy aging. She also spends a good deal of time talking to Village Trustee Karen Hartshorn Hilton, who is the trustees’ liaison to the committee.
“We in South Orange are trying very hard not to forget [our seniors],” says Hilton. Hilton, who also is chair of the Finance Committee, argues that the needs of older residents are considered in every line of the municipal budget, from recreational programming and code enforcement to pedestrian safety and communications. The village still sends a newsletter by mail, for example, an accommodation for those who are not computer literate, which includes many older adults. And though the village does not have a dedicated senior center, Hartshorn promises there will be plenty of space in the renovated Baird Center for events of all sizes, and for all ages. She says the village is looking beyond a dedicated senior center, toward something more inclusive: “I think the name of the game is intergenerational opportunity,” she says.
Maplewood’s municipality is also working toward inclusivity. Dafis notes that municipal ordinances there now require that accommodations for older adults be provided for all activities, from block parties to municipal meetings. Joan Crystal, who chairs the Maplewood Senior Advisory Committee, says her greatest accomplishment is literally pedestrian – getting a sidewalk built that connects the senior center and the community center.
Despite the many advances, however, there are obstacles for older adults who want to live in SOMA.
“The two biggest issues are housing and transportation,” says Wesley. “Always and forever.”
Tracy Carroll, the current South Orange coordinator for Two Towns for All Ages, puts it another way: “A lot of people have to move even though they don’t want to move.”
The towns are known for their big single-family houses and their small-town feel. Those work against aging adults, who need less space, and more, and closer, services. According to the 2020 census, SOMA has a smaller percentage of adults over 65 than any of its neighboring towns: just 12 percent of the population. The over 65s account for nearly 20 percent of the population in West Orange, compared with 18 percent of those living in Livingston and 17 percent in Union. Even Millburn has a higher rate. Part of the problem, says Carroll, is that there are relatively few housing options available. Maplewood has one dedicated senior housing building in addition to the relatively pricey Winchester Gardens. Carroll says South Orange has two dedicated apartment buildings, and both have waiting lists.
Carroll is a big advocate for alternative housing options for aging adults. She would like to see the towns explore house sharing – a concept where one senior might take in a roommate to share the costs of ownership and alleviate loneliness.
Many town officers are on board with Alternative Dwelling Units, smaller structures that go up on existing single family lots and provide small, independent living options for aging parents (see page 31).Taxes are always an issue, “very difficult for seniors to manage after they’ve retired,” says Crystal, “especially if one of the spouses has died.” Crystal has called Maplewood home for 40 years. She never intended to stay so long. But, she says, “You become attached to a place after a while. You put down roots.... I will stay here as long as I can, but at the same time I want to make a contribution.”
She is far from alone.
“The reason that this is such a desirable community is because of the people who have built it over the last 20, 30, 40 years,” says Maplewood resident Cathy Rowe, who was the first director of SOMA Two Towns for All Ages and who now works on aging issues at the state level. Rowe mentions the Community Coalition on Race, the nationally recognized nonprofit that was founded in 1996, and which brought the two towns national recognition for its work on building a diverse community.
There are other even older institutions within the two towns’ borders, many of which depend on older volunteers to keep running: The Maplewood Garden Club, for example, is celebrating its 95th year; Marilyn Schnaars, who was born in Orange in 1932 and has spent her entire life in SOMA, is one among several retirees who are members – and workers at the club’s annual plant sale. The Morrow Church Turnover Sale, another sale that has achieved institutional status, has long been run by a phalanx of mostly retired women. And even though Moore is a recent transplant, she still spent more than eight years as president of the Friends of South Orange Library, the indispensable group that raises money to keep the library rich in materials and programming.
“There’s not anything “cute” about seniors,” Moore says with some irritation. They are people living their lives, like everyone else, trying to be part of community and contribute to it.
The goal of public health, says Rowe, who has a doctorate in it, is healthy aging – at both a national and community level. In SOMA, “We value our diversity,” she says. That must include diversity of age. “We don’t want a community where people come, raise kids and then move.”
Tia Swanson moved to South Orange in 1997 and went from a newbie with no kids to an oldster with grown children in what feels like the blink of an eye.