Amherst elders appeal to council for senior center support

The Bangs Community Center is home to several town agencies, along with the Senior Center.

The Bangs Community Center is home to several town agencies, along with the Senior Center. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-11-2024 11:48 AM

AMHERST — Senior citizens are appealing to the Town Council to provide better financial support for the Senior Center and make a commitment to paying for physical upgrades and security improvements to the space reserved for senior citizens at the Bangs Community Center.

In public feedback Monday, the first time the newly seated Town Council took oral comments from residents, three representatives from the Council on Aging and Friends of the Senior Center described the needs of town elders, coming as the fiscal year 2025 budget starts to get put together and final decisions are made on how to spend the last $4.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act money.

Council on Aging member Jeanne Horrigan said the Senior Center is supposed to serve older adults to help them maintain their independence and their ability to age in place.

“The lack of financial resources and unwelcoming building make it difficult for staff and volunteers to realize this mission,” Horrigan said.

Less than 1% of the municipal budget goes toward senior citizens, Horrigan said, even though seniors make up a quarter of the year-round population in Amherst.

The presentation to the Town Council comes as efforts to push for a new senior center have stalled, even as other communities, including South Hadley and Hadley, have built new senior centers, and Easthampton is beginning to plan for a new one.

The Amherst Senior Center has been located in the Bangs since 1978. A letter from a long-range planning subcommittee of the Council on Aging, along with a subsequent petition in late 2017 and early 2018, asked for a new senior center to be added to the 10-year capital list of projects.

Horrigan said another problem at the community center has been numerous incidents that are scary for participants and volunteers, including one in which an individual entered the building and began screaming and threatening staff, and instances of fires being set outside the building, as well as public urination.

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Horrigan encouraged installation of security cameras, improved lighting outside, and for pull cords in bathrooms so seniors can signal emergencies.

“The Bangs Center needs to be a safe, welcoming place for our community,” Horrigan said.

Over the summer, the Town Council was informed by Town Manager Paul Bockelman that some of the remaining ARPA money would be dedicated to upgrading the Senior Center kitchen and activity space at the Bangs.

Dick Yourga, a 61-year resident of town who’s president of Friends of Amherst Senior Center, said these improvements must happen so the growing needs of over 5,500 seniors living in Amherst can be met.

“It’s your job to make decisions that make that possible. Please don’t abdicate that responsibility,” Yourga said.

The only dedicated space for town elders in the building is a lounge and offices for staff. All classes, lectures and meetings, and other programming are in shared spaces, such as the Glass Room on the lower level, the Large Activity Room on the main level and Room 101.

Other tenants in the building include the town’s Health Department, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion staff, the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service department, the John P. Musante Health Center, and the Civil War tablets exhibit in the Pole Room.

Yourga said this intense use of the building means there is also no dedicated space for exercise equipment that has been purchased.

Dennis Vandal, who also serves on the Council on Aging, said more than $25,000 was donated by the Friends in 2023, going to support 45 different programs on a monthly basis. But as much as there is a dependence on volunteers, there is also a need for qualified paid people to make sure needs are met.

“Staffing at the other senior centers is always higher,” Vandal said.

He compared Amherst to South Hadley, where he said a similar size population of senior citizens has double the staff. By his calculations, there is spending of $118 per senior citizen there, nearly triple the $41 per senior citizen spent in Amherst.

“So we’re falling well short,” Vandal said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.