'We don't have anything': Montclair seniors say their needs are not being met by town

·4 min read

Some of Montclair's senior citizens are feeling ignored.

Their concerns include the lack of a full-time director of senior services, not having a senior center, and poor communication.

"Compared to many communities around us − Clifton, Verona, Bloomfield, East Orange − we don't have anything," said Adriana O'Toole, a former member of the planning board and board of adjustment. "Other towns have senior centers, senior buses, quite large programs with lectures, programs, courses. We don't have anything."

"There is a serious lack of oversight and accountability," said Ann Lippell, president of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place. "There has been a pattern in local government of putting the senior issues at the bottom of their list of priorities."

The town has been without a director of senior services since the director, Margaret Church, went out on disability six months ago. This week, township communications director Katya Wowk confirmed that Michelle DeWitt, who is also the coordinator of programming for the Montclair Institute of Lifelong Learning, will "ensure that all work and responsibilities associated with the position of senior director are fulfilled."

According to O'Toole, DeWitt, who has been helping the seniors unofficially and is doing a "wonderful job," will have to juggle two full-time positions. That's because the town cannot legally hire a replacement for someone on disability.

"The best we can do is place someone in an interim role until the person in the formal role comes back," said Councilor Peter Yacobellis. "I'm not sure when that will be."

The lack of a senior center is another frustration point. At a recent council meeting, Penny Carey said the seniors in Montclair "are beginning to feel like Charlie Brown, and the town council is Lucy, who keeps moving the football after promising time after time she'll continue to hold it."

She said she was part of a team asked by the council to research and recommend models of senior centers and funding options about 10 years ago.

In 2015, after they had made their recommendations, they were instead offered the clubhouse at Edgemont Park, which is not large enough and has limited parking, with the understanding it was temporary.

In 2020, the first floor of the United Way building on South Fullerton was proposed. Given as a gift to the town, it has suitable space and parking, Carey said. A committee was formed to oversee renovations and architectural plans drawn up and submitted to the board of adjustment. That plan fizzed too.

Now, she said, Essex County is expanding the field house at Glenfield Park, but it's also a "small facility with inadequate parking" and it's unclear if it will be open to only the neighborhood or the entire county.

"In any case, there's been no consultation with any senior groups," Carey said.

A lack of communication is a common thread in seniors' complaints. The say that there was no notification when Church went on disability and little communication during the six months without a director.

"Why wasn't an interim director appointed during that time?" asked Luella Dudley, president of Montclair Aging Advocacy Coalition. She said that the town also no longer has a part-time social worker who helped refer seniors to services, and has been without a director of health and human services for a year.

"We need a full complement of staff to provide the services seniors deserve," Dudley said. At a recent town council meeting, she asked the council to appoint a task force to work with town and senior group leaders and address these concerns.

The town notification system for seniors is also flawed, Lippel says. During the recent heat wave, some seniors weren't informed about cooling centers and other procedures to stay safe. She called it a "major concern."

"The town attempted to communicate through email but we know a lot of seniors aren't clued in to these systems and don't get the information," Lippel said. "We need a registry of seniors in town, so we can use a combination of email and word of mouth to reach them."

Addressing seniors' needs is more important than ever post-pandemic, she said. There's new recognition that "aging in place" − staying in homes and communities as long as possible − is healthier physically and psychologically than moving to an assisted living or other institutional home, she said. Keeping seniors happy also makes sense for municipalities from a financial standpoint − they pay taxes but don't require the services of the public schools. They're also a strong voting block. "There are more seniors in town than kids in our schools," said O'Toole.

"Senior citizens are part of the continuity of life," Lippel said. "Anything leaders invest on behalf of seniors is an investment in themselves, if they want to stay in Montclair."

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Montclair NJ: Senior citizens feeling ignored, blame town