Two towns raise the bar for senior programming, services

Photo Courtesy of Cathy Rowe
Celebrating Maplewood and South Orange being inducted into the AARP New Jersey Network of Age-Friendly Communities are, from left, South Orange Trustee Karen Hartshorn Hilton, SOMA age-friendly coordinator Cathy Rowe, village President Sheena Collum, AARP NJ President Lavelle Jones, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca and Maplewood Committeeman Dean Dafis.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Bolstered by their recent induction into the AARP New Jersey Network of Age-Friendly Communities, as well as a $75,000 grant from the Grotta Fund for Senior Care, Maplewood and South Orange continue their efforts to make the towns responsive to the needs of older residents.

This most recent funding comes after the two towns received their first grant of $35,000 from the Grotta Fund in 2016 to develop an age-friendly action plan. Now in the second phase of the project, the two towns will receive up to $75,000 each year for up to three years to implement the plan developed in the first phase of the project.

The action plan seeks to address a number of issues that affect seniors, including housing, transportation, health and wellness, as well as activities. One of those activities is chair yoga, a popular version of yoga that is specifically designed for those who might have health or mobility concerns.

Chair yoga classes are being taught at the Maplewood Senior Center, 106 Burnett Ave., by Amy Power Phillips, a certified meditation teacher and who will also be leading meditation classes. The yoga classes take place on Tuesdays at 11 a.m. and the meditation classes take place on Thursdays at 11 a.m.

“I recently moved to Maplewood and I wanted to bring yoga and meditation to the community. I saw that they have a dedicated senior center, and I made a suggestion that I do chair yoga and meditation. They are both healing exercises, though they employ modalities and have different benefits,” Phillips said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I am really passionate about teaching meditation, and sharing its benefits with others. My overall goal is to promote happiness and living authentically and wholeheartedly. Teaching it to an older community will be a different experience than teaching it to a younger community. As a healing modality, it has only gained traction in the past 10 to 20 years. For the older community, it may not be something they are as familiar with, so I also need to teach in a way that will be engaging for them.”

The many activities and programs that Maplewood and South Orange seek to improve or develop for the two towns led them to the creation of an initiative called “SOMA Two Towns for All Ages.”

Under this initiative, the two towns engage a variety of stakeholders, including government members, business owners, residents, and nonprofit and faith-based organizations to take a critical look at the needs of older residents and work to respond to them.

One of the key players in ensuring that the initiative stays on track is Cathy Burke Rowe, who serves as age-friendly coordinator for SOMA Two Towns for All Ages.

“Before I started, both towns got a joint grant from the Grotta Fund to explore options and make plans, and at the end of cycle they got another grant to do another program and I was brought in as coordinator to work with both towns and make them more age friendly. My role is to find gaps and try to address them and change the way we incorporate seniors into what we do. All the efforts we are doing — like with engineering for crosswalks — the towns have been very receptive to hearing the needs of seniors and taking action on them,” Rowe said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “We’re working on finding other resources to help older residents, both financially and socially. We like diversity and we don’t want to have a transient town where people are here for a few years while their kids are in school and then move. We want to have diversity in age just as much as diversity in any other demographic.”

Rowe said South Orange had already started a Senior Advisory Committee, and after the two towns received the second round of funding, Maplewood started its own committee. Each town’s committee liaises with a member of the town’s governing body: Karen Hartshorn Hilton in South Orange and Dean Dafis in Maplewood.

“What we realized is that there were already a lot of groups going on with their own following and one group didn’t know what the other was doing,” Rowe said. “With the establishment of a formal initiative, we are communicating more, and we have been able to connect people with classes and other groups and let people know what’s going on in town.”

Rowe said this initiative has also brought awareness to the fact that all senior citizens are not the same when it comes to what they are looking for in the community.

“Just because you’re retired doesn’t mean all of the needs are the same; people have different situations for housing, income and health, among other things. The towns have to find out what their needs are and address them,” she said. “One gap that we noticed is that the jitney is limited and doesn’t run on evenings and weekends. Not all seniors want to do their shopping in the daytime Monday through Friday, so we sought alternatives, and looked at resources offered through the county and other organizations.”

Rowe also said it is important that South Orange and Maplewood know that the seniors are not looking to only receive assistance, they are also eager to give back in the places where they live.

“One of the activities that came out of the desire to give back is the Repair Cafe, which is an idea that a South Orange resident brought to the advisory committee. It’s an international organization that is age friendly, and very environmental and it really took off. Repair Cafes give beloved objects new life by repairing them and keeping them out of the landfills, and it also provides a nice way for cross-generational interaction because older generations are used to repairing things, but people today tend to throw items out and buy a new one. Ours is the first one in New Jersey, and both Newark and Summit plan to adopt the program as well. We hold it every six months, one in fall and spring,” Rowe said, adding that seniors want to contribute.

“They want to bring passion and knowledge to share with others. One of the things that sets us apart from other towns is that from the beginning we got support from our mayors. We got help from the top down and that makes a huge difference. The mayor of Maplewood and the village president of South Orange are committed and we are going to make this happen, we’re in it for the long haul.”

The next SOMA Repair Cafe will be held at Morrow Memorial Church, 600 Ridgewood Road in Maplewood, on Saturday, Oct. 27, from 2 to 5 p.m. To share repair skills or volunteer to help at the event, contact Cathy Rowe at or 973-558-0863. Volunteers of all skill levels are appreciated.