AYER — The Ayer Senior Center, housed in a rented unit owned by the Housing Authority and located within its senior housing apartment complex on Pond Street, is squeezed for space and needs a new home, according to Council on Aging Director Katie Petrossi and Assistant Town Manager Carly Antonellis.
During a recent interview at the center, Petrossi spelled out why the move is necessary.
To begin with, the unit isn’t big enough, she said, indoors or out, to accommodate more in-house programs and events and it lacks a commercial kitchen to prepare meals on site.
Lunch, served every day, alternates between boxed “Meals on Wheels” lunches that Making Opportunity Count provides free of charge, or catered meals purchased from area restaurants and paid for in part with Community Development Block Grant grant funds allocated for “food insecurity.”
Sharing statistics that illustrate her point, Petrossi said seniors — people over 60 — make up about 24% of Ayer’s population of about 8,400. That percentage mirrors the country’s as a whole, she said.
Petrossi also noted disruptive effects of the pandemic shutdown when the center closed for 18 months and the former director resigned. Some seniors who relied on the center as a place to go, to seek assistance or just socialize, were left isolated in their homes, she said, adding that studies have shown that for seniors in particular, loneliness can be deadly. Physically as well as psychologically damaging, ill effects from isolation can be like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, Petrossi said.
Since the center reopened, she’s been “rebuilding from scratch,” she said, getting the word out to draw people back in and adding staff one by one.
As yet, there’s no outreach coordinator, but Montachusett Regional Transit Authority Van Coordinator Sam Parr is still on board, Petrossi said, and she couldn’t be happier about that. Besides his daytime duties — providing rides to medical appointments or grocery shopping — he helps out in other ways, she said. He once agreed on short notice to shuttle a group of ladies to an area eatery for a night out, she said.
A recent hire is Nutrition Coordinator Denise Galvin, who just started and already helped set up an outdoor event at noon on another hot day, one in a string of scorchers.
The event was a picnic under the trees, with live entertainment, attended by about 18 people enjoying boxed lunches and 1960s tunes, played and sung by keyboardist/singer Dan Kerouac.
Petrossi said she’d love to hold more outdoor events for more people, but space is a constraint. The impromptu picnic ground site was just about big enough for a few tables and chairs set up under shade trees on the gentle side of a hill that slopes down to Pirone Park and the pond.
It was a pleasant summer scene with people chatting as a hot breeze blew napkins around and Kerouac delivered a nice rendition of the theme from “Midnight Cowboy.”
Inside the existing center, areas are set aside according to use — crafts, storage, files, desks, conversation and dining areas, etc. — and separated by room dividers. Petrossi said she had pared down furnishings to essential pieces, removing big old parlor pieces that had crowded the small space. But creative moves can only go so far to repurpose what is basically an open concept set-up — which she compared to a “one-room school.”
For example, there’s no office for her to meet with people privately. Someone may want to discuss personal issues but it’s hard to do that with the rest of the room in use, people talking and moving around just on the other side of a moveable “wall” that stops short of the ceiling and has no door.
The conversation space, which she envisions as a cozy, clustered seating area, is now a couple of chairs, steps away from the long, multipurpose table used for dining and a variety of other things.
On this day, for example, a group of volunteers sat there assembling the August edition of the Senior Center newsletter, “Longevity Ledger,” which offers a full calendar of useful information, programs and events, lunch menus and the MART van schedule.
Just for fun there are morning coffee hours three days a week, weekly Cribbage games, Rummikub and Bingo, one dollar per card, plus creative crafts such as knitting and crocheting and a journaling workshop, with the finished products printed up at $10 a pop.
Under the “Fitness” category, there’s Yoga, chair exercise, workouts for problem areas such as arthritis and knee/hip issues. Walking Club meets Thursday at 9 am; Pickleball games are Tuesday mornings.
This month’s movie is “Respect,” shown on Friday, Aug. 19 at 1 p.m., snacks included. Other special events include speakers, group trips and more.
At the other end of the table, Petrossi showed a visitor a layout sketch for the envisioned new center, divided into rooms and handicapped accessible. She explained why it’s not feasible to simply downsize plans to fit the current space, erecting solid walls to create rooms, etc., even if there were enough square footage to allow it. “There’s only so much you can do in a rented space,” she said.
What has been done, though, besides clearing out furniture, has made a big difference, she said, including leveling the floor and painting the walls a light, neutral color. The goal is to bring people back to the center, she said and to that end, a location that’s more visible as well as roomier is key.
Petrossi said the problem hindering the proposed building project isn’t money; the town has set aside “ample” funds in its budget for the purpose, she said. Nor is it garnering public support for building a new senior and community center, which townspeople have backed the idea, she said.
The issue is finding a parcel of land to build on.
Specifically, at least 1.5 acres on which to construct a 15,000-square-foot building. Plus suitable space for outdoor events.
As it is, the Senior Center is neat, clean, and as user-friendly as Petrossi can make it. She’s grateful to the Housing Authority for carving out space for the center, but she acknowledged it’s a bit off the beaten path, tucked away at the rear of the complex, under a resident’s balcony, with limited parking.
Ironically, given the population it seeks the serve, the center lacks handicapped access, Petrossi said, and thus doesn’t meet ADA requirements, not even the bathroom, which is smack-dab in front of the entrance, the first area that greets you, coming in. It’s not outfitted with handicapped accessible fixtures and features, she said, and it would be costly to invest in a makeover for what is basically a rental unit.
Antonellis said Petrossi has done a great job since coming aboard about a year ago, initiating the best possible fix-up and re-animating the Senior Center, challenges and all.
The housing hunt, ongoing since 2019, has gone as far afield as Devens but has gotten nowhere so far. MassDevelopment offered to lease an existing building in Devens, Petrossi said, but estimated renovation costs and permitting issues ruled it out.
The town isn’t asking for a land donation, Petrossi pointed out, but wants to buy a parcel at market rate. Anyone with land to sell – 1.5 acres and buildable – may call the Town Manager’s office at 978-8220, ext. 100 or the COA Director at 978-772-8260.