AMHERST — Council on Aging members have initiated conversations with town officials regarding areas of concern for the current Senior Center space and how to resolve them.

On Jan 8., members of the Council on Aging and representatives from the Senior Center met with Town Council about concerns of understaffing and underfunding in order to begin addressing some of these concerns.

Senior Center Director Hayley Bolton told Reminder Publishing that the initial talks with the town went well, and she hopes they can work together to resolve a few concerns that can be addressed in the near future, as well as big picture plans to improve the offerings of the center.

“The Town Council seemed very supportive of that, and I know there has been smaller discussions since to talk about what can be done to improve the Senior Center,” Bolton said. “They do plan to make a more continued presence like having a more vocal platform at the meetings [on these concerns].”

The Amherst Senior Center shares space inside the Bangs Community Center which Bolton said is a good space for their work, they are just looking to improve on these spaces and more efficiently use it. Bolton said before any major or renovation type work can get planned, the first and foremost issue the building faces according to Bolton is getting certain areas of it back up to state code.

One of the first issues that has been raised from Senior Center and Council on Aging officials is the fact that Amherst just has fewer dollars going toward the center than neighboring communities.

In a letter signed by the Friends of the Amherst Senior Center President Dick Yourga, Council on Aging President Jeanne Horrigan, as well as members from both groups, they expressed these concerns that represent the interests of 5,500 senior citizens in town as a kickstarting method of initiating these conversations.

“The Amherst Senior Center is understaffed and underfunded. Similar towns, such as South Hadley, spend about $117 per member of its senior population on their senior center while Amherst spends only slightly more than $45. South Hadley has seven full time staff members while Amherst only has four,” the letter said.

While this comparison was made to South Hadley, who just constructed a brand-new senior center that opened two years ago, concerns from the Amherst officials involved are not necessarily calling for a whole new building, just that more resources put toward its existing one.

“Many towns in the Pioneer Valley have chosen to build new, modern and efficient senior centers to offer a vast variety of programs while Amherst has chosen to drastically reduce the amount of space for its seniors,” the letter continued. “South Hadley offers 16,000 square feet of space for activities while Amherst offers barely over 2,000 square feet dedicated to the Senior Center. Three other rooms are shared by the seven organizations housed at the Bangs Community Center.”

One present issue regarding the space available designated to the Senior Center is that there is workout equipment, including two treadmills and stationary bikes, just sitting in a room being used for storage as there is no proper gym space for them.

Bolton explained the senior center received this equipment after an earmark to do so in order to bring some physical activity options in.

“This space is not equipped to be a gym. You’re really far away from everything, there’s no pull cords, the ventilation’s not right, so it just kind of becomes a storage room,” Bolton said.

Bolton said while a new building isn’t that realistic, a floor renovation of the Bangs Community Center could help establish better uses of the space and in turn have more offerings for the senior population.

The letter also calls out the state of the kitchen inside Bangs Community Center, calling it “so woefully inadequate that the Senior Center can serve little more than coffee and donuts.”

Another easy fix according to those on behalf of the Senior Center is the installation of new fire sprinklers (part of getting up to code) ad the installation of security cameras.

“We have gathered out of deep concern for the wellbeing of Amherst’s senior population. We intend to bring about positive change for Amherst’s seniors. As members of the Council on Aging and the Friends of the Amherst Senior Center, we plan to work with the Amherst Town Council to provide Amherst’s seniors the building and services they so richly deserve,” the letter stated.

Bolton reiterated another easy fix that can be made to start improving services is the addition of more staff. She added she has already planned to budget out space for new staff for the next budgeting cycle.

“There was a period of time over the summer where we had some folks who moved, some retired, and so we were working with two staff people trying to run the whole building for about two months,” Bolton said. “It was really hard. I think definitely having more hands-on deck is a plus, and I don’t think there’s a department here in town that would say, ‘we can’t use more people. It would be huge, because if you have the people, even if you don’t have the ideal space, you have enough hands that you can do a program a different way, or do more outreach in the community. People power is huge. In any organization your staff if your best asset, so if you can grow that asset, why wouldn’t you.”

In closing, Bolton remained optimistic about bringing the community together to address these issues and is happy conversations have started so more are aware of the concerns she and so many who work with the town’s senior population currently face. She hopes that community leaders becoming more vocal on these concerns is what she hopes to see in the near future even knowing there is general support to look at the building and resolve some of the concerns.

“It’s one thing for me to say it, but for the town, when you’re hearing your community say that, it’s a lot more powerful,” Bolton said. “My hope for the next year would be people saying, ‘why does this community have a new building and we have exercise equipment we can’t use?’

With such a crucial population being served through their services, Bolton said the work can be challenging but it was vital for this resource to be operating at its best for the residents they serve.

“There are a lot of departments that are public facing, but we are probably the only human service department for the town. We are constantly working with people day in and day out, we constantly get phone calls. It’s not uncommon to have people come into the office and need to have a one-on-one consult and that’s different from other departments,” Bolton said. “One thing that I think is unique, again, is the loss. The loss we have to deal with. You get really connected with people and one day they’re not there and it’s so hard.”

Bolton added that the role a senior center plays in its community is vital as it continues the atmosphere of community for the aging population.

“Being a part of the community makes you healthy, and I think that’s one of the biggest services we can offer,” Bolton said.

tlevakis@thereminder.com | + posts