AYER -- As a group of Ayer seniors pump iron in the exercise class next door, staff at the Council on Aging are about to prepare lunch with Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" playing in the background.

"We're not your average senior center," said Director Karin Swanfeldt, sitting in a small office area equipped with a living room rug.

The council affects about 400 seniors every week through Meals on Wheels, daily lunches or other activities -- all with only three employees on the town payroll.

But when Swanfeldt took over 14 years ago, the situation at Pond Road was very different.

"I walked into this building July 2, and my husband looked at me and went, 'What are you doing?'" she said. "I thought, 'You know what, we can make this work' -- and we did."

The center did not have much furniture and its makeshift kitchen had paper plates. Lunch occurred only twice a week, food came in prepped and clientele was low.

With limited town funds, Swanfeldt used her bartering skills to transform the center into today's home away from home. She used connections in Devens to pick up unwanted furniture and even brought in inmates from a Shirley correctional facility to paint the walls in exchange for lunch.

"That was how we started," she said. "Bartering and yard sales."

Now, seniors can enjoy afternoon cribbage games, Bingo Fridays and "Ladies day" Tuesdays that feature knitting and chick flicks.


Staff members prepare meals in the home kitchen built by the housing authority, and visitors can read in the well-furnished reading area by the entrance.

"When I come to work in the morning, to me it's just like leaving my house and coming to my other house," said nutrition coordinator Louisa Ratcliffe.

The house kitchen, dining room tables, centerpieces and tablecloths make people feel at home, she said. The quality of food has also improved and attracted more clients.

The center is one of a very few in the state that offers lunch five days a week, with the Police and Fire departments sponsoring meals on special occasions.

In July, the council also developed an outreach coordinator position to inform seniors about various elderly services. Jean Taylor took the position after volunteering for Meals on Wheels.

"How I started to learn how to do this was helping Karin and Louisa and kind of going over the role," she said.

The center also relies on van coordinator Verna Hughes, who is employed by the Montachusett Regional Transportation Authority and arranges trips for seniors.

The staff is small but multi-talented, easily shifting from one task to the next. All three town employees have at least 10 years of volunteer experience with the center, from working Meals on Wheels to driving the MART van.

"When one of us is out, we keep going," Swanfeldt said. "We do not shut the doors, the meals are served, everything stays the same."

After exercise class, a small crowd starts to pour in for lunch.

"We refer to this place as Wrinkle City," said Bob Smith, 71, who comes in to play cards two nights every week. Smith said the staff and volunteers go above and beyond, even though it is hard to get people involved in activities.

"It's tough to get people together and get involved with activities," he said. "They have a tendency to stay in their apartments."

Jim Moody, 87, comes in every day for lunch and afternoon cribbage games.

"I think it's a great place, I don't know why more people in town don't use it," Moody said. "The food is good, the people are nice, we have cribbage and bingo and movies that go on here. All in all, it's a good place to come and spend some time."

Despite the small staff and budgetary constraints, Swanfeldt said the center has made seniors feel welcome. This trust is the most important thing to the elderly population.

"You can have the biggest, brightest, shiniest center in the world, but if people don't feel comfortable and don't trust, you're not doing your job," she said. "You've got to have trust. It's crucial. It's the foundation of what we do down here."