Resident calls for more resources to assist the elderly in WO

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Longtime West Orange resident Rosary Morelli has been helping her fellow senior citizens since her retirement in 1992. From answering their questions to driving them to appointments and advocating for their needs at Township Council meetings, Morelli has become a one-woman resource for seniors in need. And she has gotten a reputation for it too, with members of the township’s elderly population calling her house daily. She has even started keeping “office hours” from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

But now Morelli is embarking on an even larger mission to improve the lives of senior citizens in West Orange. After looking into the services offered by other towns in the area, she feels that West Orange is not doing enough to allow seniors to “age in place,” or continue residing in their homes instead of having to move into a care facility. And she is starting a movement to push the township to change that.

“The town is not being proactive,” Morelli told the West Orange Chronicle in a June 10 phone interview. “I go around to all these other towns and talk to so many people and see that they’re doing so much, and we’re not doing anything. Now, I don’t know why.

“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” she continued. “There are a million different things that can be done. It’s a matter of being proactive and doing research and being smart about what we research so that we don’t reinvent the wheel.”

The concept of aging in place has indeed been embraced by communities across the country as its senior population continues to grow. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 40.3 million people ages 65 and older living in the nation as of 2010, an increase of 5.3 million compared to 2000. That number is expected to rise to 55 million by 2020, and eventually to 88.5 million by 2050, per the bureau. According to census data, West Orange alone was home to 7,362 residents ages 65 and older in 2010.

And these senior citizens do not want to leave their homes, with the AARP reporting that 87 percent of seniors wish to remain where they live as they grow older.

Many communities are starting to accommodate this desire through means such as designing houses to be senior-friendly, disseminating information in ways other than through the Internet and offering activities targeted specifically for the elderly. Locally, Montclair has a large senior bus system that takes older residents to various locations throughout town. South Orange and Maplewood recently held a senior forum at which people discussed what services they would like to see added after completing a detailed survey.

West Orange already offers several senior services, including a transportation program for medical appointments, personal visits and shopping trips; social events; exercise classes; and a program providing help to those with insurance questions. Morelli acknowledged that all are good initiatives, but said they are not enough to meet the needs of township seniors. She said that the township should grow those services so they fall more in line with what other senior-minded communities are doing.

In order to learn exactly which services to expand, Morelli stressed that a survey and forum should be conducted, similar to those done in South Orange and Maplewood. By giving a medium through which seniors can share their opinions on what they would like, she said West Orange will have the feedback required to best satisfy seniors’ desires.

“You don’t know what’s wrong until you go out and ask, and seniors will tell you,” Morelli said. “Then you can analyze what you can and can’t do.”

In addition, Morelli suggested creating a senior advisory committee that includes both resident senior citizens and township officials. That way, she said, West Orange will have a sanctioned body to discuss issues affecting the elderly and bring ideas to the town leadership. Livingston has a similar group, which consists of 25 volunteers who recommend programs to improve the lives of its older residents.

There is one West Orange program that Morelli already knows needs expanding — the senior transportation program. She said the demand for the program is so great that many seniors have a difficult time scheduling appointments. This can be dangerous, she said, because some may cancel doctor’s appointments if they are unable to get a ride.

Morelli suggested increasing the number of shuttles — the township currently has five — and is in favor of possibly using volunteer vehicles and school buses as possible alternatives. She said that she hopes to reach out to local clergy and medical facilities to see if they can provide any transportation.

Additionally, Morelli said that she would like to see a better interface between West Orange’s program and Essex County’s Special Transportation System so the township could help arrange trips outside the township for seniors in need of this. Currently, she said many seniors have expressed frustration over the process required to book a trip with the county.

The likelihood of these ideas coming to fruition remains to be seen. Mayor Robert Parisi told the Chronicle that he does not see the necessity of conducting a survey or forum when West Orange seniors already have so many avenues to express their opinions. Parisi said he regularly gets phone calls, letters, emails and office hour visits from seniors willing to share their thoughts, and he also attends almost every senior event held in town. Aside from this, he pointed out that Patti Duffy, the township’s senior citizen program aide, routinely communicates with seniors in her job overseeing senior services.

As for the senior transportation program, Parisi said the township is always looking to expand the service and even recently added a few routes to the Ginny Duenkel pool. But he said there are no plans for any additional expansion right now, and any expansion in the future would be determined by the town’s finances.

Parisi said he believes West Orange already offers a wealth of services for its senior population, saying the township as an ideal community in which to age in place.

“We as a community have always tried to do what we can to make the senior citizen population comfortable and give them opportunities to enjoy their lives here in West Orange,” Parisi said in June 13 phone interview. “There have been a lot of great improvements in the various ways we serve our senior citizen population over the years, and we’ll always continue to look to improve on that when possible.”

The proposed senior advisory committee may happen in the near future, though apparently without Councilman Jerry Guarino. Though he was the only council member to publicly express an interest in being part of the group, Guarino said he was later informed that he would not be needed since Councilman Joe Krakoviak was already on board. Still, as a board member of Renna House, Guarino said he would like to help improve senior services where possible.

But, like Parisi, Guarino stressed that West Orange already has plenty to offer its senior citizens. In fact, he said he never hears complaints from the seniors with whom he speaks frequently.

“We do a lot,” Guarino told the Chronicle in a June 13 phone interview. “Is there more that we can do? Maybe. We need to look at it. But right now we don’t abandon our seniors, and our seniors are well taken care of.”

However, Morelli intends to continue advocating for senior services, and she is not alone. Morelli said her friend Leigh Ann Zaolino is helping her compile research on aging in place. There is a lot out there on the subject, she said, and she wants to gather as much information as possible before pushing for any major changes.

Pleasant Valley Way Civic Association President Roz Moskovitz Bielski has also joined in the movement in an effort to complement her own mission of promoting Complete Streets in West Orange. Bielski said Complete Streets, a concept that calls for roadways to be designed with pedestrians and bicyclists in mind, is pivotal for allowing seniors to age in place. For instance, she said making streets safer will enable more elderly residents to walk to places where they can meet friends, thus preventing them from feeling isolated and lonely.

Above all Bielski said improving street safety will prevent further tragedies like the recent death of Dilma Khan, an 82-year-old West Orange resident who was struck by a bus while crossing Harrison Avenue. Bielski said creating level sidewalks and implementing an increased time limit for pedestrians to cross the street could make a big difference for seniors. Plus, she said just making sure people know the necessity of Complete Streets can go a long way.

“We have to realize that safe mobility is crucial to everyone in our community,” Bielski told the Chronicle in a June 10 phone interview. “It’s even more so for seniors because if you have a senior citizen who trips and falls, it’s not good.”

Morelli and her partners are still in the early stages of taking action, but they have already made some gains. In addition to accumulating “reams” of information on aging in place, Morelli said she has attended a few informational programs such as the South Orange-Maplewood forum and a New York State Department of Transportation conference. She said both were eye-opening experiences on how much can be done for seniors as well as disabled residents.

It’s all been a lot of work for the senior citizen advocate, who described the effort as being equivalent to a full-time job. But to her, it is worthwhile

“If you help just one person, then it’s fine,” Morelli said. “If you help the people, then you’re helping the town.”