WEST ORANGE, NJ — Several senior citizens expressed concern at the April 10 West Orange Township Council meeting, after seeing the results from the Montclair State University senior survey at the March 27 meeting. The survey, paid for by a grant, was conducted and compiled by the Center for Research and Evaluation on Education and Human Services, an independent research and assessment center at MSU.
One resident, Frank Grosso, said that the survey did not accurately reflect his life as a disabled person. Among his specific concerns is transportation, one of the most significant areas of interest for local seniors, the survey revealed.
“The senior survey was not geared for the disabled senior,” Grosso said at the meeting. “I have difficulty with the town bus because the lift for wheelchairs often doesn’t work when I call. Recently, I’ve just stopped calling for transportation because it’s been so bad.”
Grosso also said he is not a part of the 90 percent of respondents who said they use computers regularly, and does not have a family income between $100,000 and $149,000 per year.
Mariel Clemensen, another resident who spoke at the meeting, said that survey results showed an underrepresentation of minority voices — of the 753 respondents, 80 percent were white and 66 percent were female. Clemensen expressed her frustration with the breakdown of the respondents in an email to the West Orange Chronicle on April 13, though she also said that the town has made an effort to correct some of these issues.
“There were too many underrepresented segments in the survey whose voices were not heard, such as males, minorities, people who don’t use computers, people who don’t drive, the disabled and people with health problems,” Clemensen said. “To their credit, the township immediately made changes to upgrade the town website and put more emphasis on communication of existing services.”
The survey included 89 questions, a fact that was brought up several times, including by township administrator Jack Sayers, saying that the length and time it took to complete the survey may have been a deterrent to some potential respondents. Roz Moskowitz Bielski, who assisted with the circulation of the survey along the Pleasant Valley Way corridor, agreed.
“(It was) frustratingly too long — this had a negative impact on responses. I’m sure many did not finish,” Bielski said in an email to the Chronicle in April 13. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel and should always look to replicate methodology that works in nearby towns, particularly Montclair, South Orange, Livingston and Summit.”
Rosary Morelli, a West Orange resident who often advocates for local seniors, was part of the early drafting process of the survey. She said its structure was tough to navigate and some questions were repetitive.
“Most of the questions were relevant, but the structure and overall design was cumbersome. Some of the questions were redundant,” Morelli told the Chronicle in an email on April 13. “The organization of subject matter in some cases was misplaced,” she said, citing that, “some transportation questions were found under the health section, which made answering correctly a little difficult.”
Morelli said that she would have liked to see the town design the survey itself, as neighboring towns South Orange and Maplewood have, rather than have MSU create it.
At the council meeting, Councilman Victor Cirilo pointed out that 33 percent of the respondents who took the survey declined to share their yearly income, which most likely contributed to the statistics that came back. Councilwoman Michelle Casalino, who worked with MSU on the survey, agreed.
“When we looked at the financial brackets, we made a big effort to distribute to homeowners,” Casalino told the Chronicle in a phone interview on April 13. “And 33 percent didn’t say. But I don’t want people to think that (services available) are based on how you’re doing financially. That is not the case.”
Casalino said the survey gives the town an idea of how to move forward, while also hearing about concerns from residents. She said she hopes to see more people who want to age in place in West Orange, possibly paving the way for a future 55-plus housing community. Immediate solutions are also on the horizon, with a part-time bus driver for senior citizens in the township’s 2018 budget.
“This is a starting point, we knew it wouldn’t be perfect,” she said. “Folks are now aware of (senior services) and that’s a great advertisement. This is part of the investment, so now we move forward from step one.”
Morelli said that she wants to see actual change as a result of the survey; she thinks West Orange needs more proactive management for its senior citizens, but acknowledged that the council is now aware of the issues revealed by the survey.
“If this effort falls on deaf ears and we only get lip service about adding programs and services, West Orange will steadily lose ground in appeasing an older and growing population,” she said. “Some directors do not appear to have a long-term sense of direction and purpose. That seemed to be communicated by certain council members based on their proposed efforts and initiatives. Council members did state that the administration needs to work more on the deficiencies that were identified in the survey.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic