Wards 2 and 3 heighten push to fund ‘virtual’ senior center

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Iona Senior Services' Isabella Breckinridge Community Center is located at 4125 Albemarle St. NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2016)

Few observers in Northwest are opposed to expanding resources and services for older residents in wards 2 and 3, the city’s only two wards without a brick-and-mortar senior wellness center. But even as consensus forms around the best approaches to filling existing gaps, funding obstacles remain.

On Monday, Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh toured Tenleytown’s Iona Senior Services, one of the upper Northwest hubs for senior resources, which functions on a mixture of city funds and contributions from participants and other donors. In the process, she offered a window into current prospects for the long-sought wellness center concept in wards 2 and 3. In short: the will is there, but as yet, the money isn’t.

The DC Senior Advisory Coalition — a citywide group that includes Iona executive director Sally White — is calling for the mayor’s upcoming fiscal year 2018 budget to include $200,000 for a “virtual wellness center” that could be replicated in other parts of the city. The “center without walls” would operate piecemeal out of existing buildings, with services designed to combat social isolation including fitness, nutrition, socialization and art.

The coalition hopes this allocation won’t come at the expense of existing local grant dollars, though White said Monday that she’s heard hints that cuts might be necessary. Cheh indicated that she’ll advocate for keeping the existing funds while adding new ones to pursue the wellness center concept. Further out, she hopes the city will consider expanding existing senior services at the Chevy Chase Community Center as part of the facility’s planned renovation.

The funds for any new center would be allocated to the Office on Aging, which oversees the city’s senior facilities. Without offering specifics on this year’s budget, agency director Laura Newland told The Current that she’s generally not in favor of cutting valued programs for new ones. She hopes to find low-cost solutions that begin to address existing issues without a massive upfront cost.

“We don’t want to roll out these huge programs without really understanding if they are going to work in the way that we had intended,” Newland said. “We try to do new things on a smaller scale and see, ‘Is it working?’”

As of 2014, 17,581 seniors lived in Ward 3, more than any other ward, according to census data from the D.C. Office of Planning. Ward 3’s seniors had an average income of $74,716, the city’s highest, and a poverty rate of 3.9 percent, the city’s lowest by far.

Ward 2 had 11,058 senior residents, the third-lowest senior population of the eight wards. Their average income was $60,491, and 11 percent of them lived in poverty as of 2014. By comparison, 9,589 residents in the city’s least wealthy senior population, Ward 8, had an average income of $15,972 and a poverty rate of 25 percent.

Activists like Carolyn Cook, a former Chevy Chase advisory neighborhood commissioner, caution against using these numbers to justify fewer services for more affluent areas. She continues to call for a brick-and-mortar senior center, and rejects the argument that there are not financially struggling seniors in her area. “To assume that no seniors of Ward 3 have low income is wrong and unfair and discriminatory,” Cook said.

Regardless of statistics, seniors at all levels need equal access to services, advocates say. Newland said Monday that finding the right location for the right price can be daunting. She’s seen evidence elsewhere in the nation that multiple sites can be useful to seniors, who have a wide variety of needs that can’t always be served in a one-stop setting. The key piece that’s currently missing, she said, is a communication initiative that effectively informs senior residents of nearby options.

Such an allocation would mark a more concrete step than in previous years toward addressing the existing need. The current fiscal year’s budget included $100,000 for a feasibility study on a wellness center in Ward 3. But due to what Newland describes as a “communications failure on my part,” the agency assessed the needs citywide without the requested Ward 3 focus.

Cheh plans this time to request special attention to the agency’s senior wellness efforts from the council’s Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, chaired by at-large member Anita Bonds, who wasn’t available for comment in time for publication.

Fellow at-large member Elissa Silverman also sits on that committee and plans to raise the senior center issue during the upcoming council hearing on the budget. She told The Current she has a personal stake in the issue: She hopes to help her parents move to D.C.

“I certainly want a brick-and-mortar one, but the issue is cost, and the issue is location,” Silverman said. “The virtual senior center is a compromise.”

Others, like Ward 3 activist Matt Frumin, think a “hubs and spokes” model with linked locations would be the most effective.

Though Iona assists more than 3,000 seniors per year, according to White, its capacity is limited. The waiting list for daily care numbered 50 a few weeks ago, though it will drop once renovations to the facility are completed in about three months, according to Susan Messina, Iona’s director of development and communication. Last year’s city budget cut into a few of its essential programs, including case management.

Iona staffers fought back tears as they read Cheh letters from care recipients, who thanked Iona for lifting their spirits, connecting them to new companions, and even putting them on a track to better health. They hope this year’s budget will facilitate opportunities for positive stories like those, at Iona and elsewhere.

“This is why we do what we do here,” Messina said.