Through Seniors Advisory Committee, Maplewood works to support its seniors

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Maplewood has much to offer its intergenerational population and is committed to continuing to build an age-friendly community, according to an April 21 press release from the town. To that end the Maplewood Seniors Advisory Committee was formed as a subcommittee of the Maplewood Township Committee to advise the township on ways to create an environment where senior citizens can age in place for as long as possible with a high quality of life, civic and political engagement, and assistance in health, safety, communication and other issues affecting seniors.

“The Senior Advisory Committee has been critical in making the township more age-friendly, and in raising awareness about seniors’ vulnerabilities, their concerns, and their needs,” Township Committee liaison Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis said. “Because of the committee, older adults aren’t invisible any longer. We strive for a fully inclusive community without discrimination (due to) age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, race, religion, ethnicity, or immigration status.”

Melissa Mancuso, director of the Department of Community Services, has been proactive in creating safe, affordable and accessible social, recreational, and educational programming that engages and celebrates older adults. With people quarantining, the department addressed loneliness and isolation by delivering “Sunshine Kits,” baking kits and “Grocery Shop & Drops” to homes, as well as providing socially distanced outdoor events. 

“Working with the senior community is extremely rewarding, and we invite feedback so that we can fill gaps in programming and (create) new offerings,” Mancuso said. “All town issues are seniors issues, and making sure their perspective is shared and understood is a goal of the Department of Community Services and the Seniors Advisory Committee.”

The Maplewood Seniors Advisory Committee holds public meetings, currently on Zoom, during which residents are invited to speak individually and collectively. The advisory committee identifies the needs of the senior population and makes recommendations as to how these needs can best be met given the resources of the governing body and town departments. 

“We want to create an environment for seniors to share their individual problems so we can help resolve them,” committee Co-chairperson Joan Crystal said. “By learning these concerns through community input we can best advise the Township Committee and departments on actions needed to make it possible for older adults to remain in Maplewood for as long as possible.”

The full committee has 11 members, each with three-year terms; Ordinance 2844-16 requires that at least one member under the age of 25 serve on the committee, along with six senior citizens. Sydney Larrier is the newest and youngest member appointed to the Maplewood Seniors Advisory Committee and is co-chairperson. Larrier’s focus in 2021 will be to address accessibility issues within local small businesses and public spaces.

“The Maplewood Seniors Advisory Committee is ready and eager to do all in its power to improve life for Maplewood’s senior residents — whether that means lending its voice to statewide calls for age-friendly legislation and action, or speaking to local business owners about improving age-friendly access and offerings,” Larrier said.

From installing benches as resting points around town for walkers to take a break and enjoy Maplewood’s fine scenery, to fitness classes and informative lectures, Community Services takes its cue from the Seniors Advisory Committee to meet the needs of the diverse aging demographic. Advocating for the over-65 set for 28 years, Senior Program supervisor Michelle Wesley has created a welcoming senior center at 106 Burnett Ave. 

“We offer everything from mahjong and yoga to fun field trips and themed seasonal parties,” Wesley said. “We went virtual during the pandemic and look forward to inviting our golden agers back to our facilities when it is safe to gather in person again.”

During the pandemic, Wesley interacted daily with elders, scheduling transportation and checking in on their needs by phone, along with quick, distanced visits to deliver supplies. For the future, Wesley is hoping to host a “silver prom,” complete with corsages and dancing, as well as to bring back Seniors Serving Seniors, originally created in the 1980s by Andrew Shue, where Columbia High School seniors help with things such as changing light bulbs or shoveling snow for retirees who need help.

Recent Maplewood Seniors Advisory Committee contributions and initiatives include lending its voice to the call for senior tax relief at the state level — the Senior Freeze Property Tax Program has been reinstalled and the deadline extended to Dec. 31, 2021 — and Operation Blue Angel, which created lock boxes allowing police, fire and ambulance personnel to enter homes in case of an emergency.

The committee is currently working to create a mechanism and chain of responses for a senior or child prone to wandering and getting lost, including collaboration with the police department and coordinated social media efforts, as well as guidelines for families with people apt to wander so that it will be easier to locate them. The utilization of tracking devices is being considered.

The Maplewood Seniors Advisory Committee works in unison with the SOMA Two Towns For All Ages initiative, which aims to identify, develop and coordinate resources, policies, programs and services that support and empower all residents of Maplewood and South Orange to age in place, as full members of the community.