Senior citizens are getting their due in Maplewood and South Orange, and it’s not just lip service.
South Orange has been grabbing most the headlines lately with its very active Senior Citizens Advisory Committee which has produced two Senior Citizen Forums and generated senior-centric promotions such as a Senior Citizen Discount Card that is accepted by more than 65 merchants in the village. In October, Village President Sheena Collum also announced additional services such as adult day care, meal planning, grocery shopping, and medicare counseling to be provided through a contract with Sage Eldercare.
Meanwhile Maplewood Senior Share sponsored a candidates debate for the first time this past year. During budget hearings, Maplewood’s Health Official Bob Roe has requested funds to expand health clinics to Winchester Gardens, a senior citizen assisted-living facility in town. The town recently purchased a building bordering DeHart Park with talk of turning it into a senior center. And newly elected Township Committee members both cited a focus on seniors as a priority in their inauguration speeches.
So why have seniors become such a hot topic in the towns?
South Orange Senior Share has contended that South Orange’s (and Maplewood’s) local senior population is shrinking as those on fixed incomes or whose children have grown are moving out — ostensibly to avoid high property taxes. Another chorus of voices has come from the South Orange-Maplewood School District where school enrollment has exceeded demographers’ predictions year after year as the growth rate of the student population continually outpaces birth rates.
Development in the two towns is also booming, with a number of new multifamily apartments coming on line or in development throughout the towns. That development has agitated many who worry that it will drive student population even higher despite the small size of the units. There is a growing consensus that the towns must retain seniors, either in their current homes or by downsizing senior families into those new units, in order to ease the burden on the school population while maintaining a broad tax base to support the school district.
“I believe we are at risk of losing [our diversity] with regard to income and age diversity here,” said Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams at her inauguration on Jan. 1. “I don’t want to see Maplewood become exclusive rather than inclusive, but the high cost of housing and property taxes are seemingly a never-ending challenge. These factors are the greatest threat to our loss of a community that is inclusive of everyone. We need to work with our state representatives to address these issues. The school funding formulas that hurt our towns and the state’s heavy reliance on property taxes are two extremely important issues that need to be addressed in Trenton in order to help us retain the variety of citizens so vital to our community.”
Newly sworn-in Township Committeeman Greg Lembrich echoed Adams’ remarks and promised action: “I also want to focus on improving and expanding programs for seniors, including ways to make Maplewood more active and more affordable for those that helped build our community.”
Like any trend, you know it’s for real when the real estate community has recognized it. Local realtors Allison Ziefert and Mark Slade of Keller Williams Mid-Town Direct are hosting a free seminar titled “Making Your Golden Years More Golden” on February 4 at their office at 161 Maplewood Avenue (7-9 p.m., RSVP to [email protected] or 973-376-1600.) The event includes health care professionals, organization specialists, mortgage brokers, financial planners and more, to discuss everything from “aging in place” to reverse mortgages to downsizing to preserving assets.
Ziefert wrote about the trend in senior housing for Village Green last August, and saw a rosier picture than that described by South Orange Senior Share. Ziefert noted that “more older adults [are] relocating to the area from other states to be closer to their kids or [are] looking to downsize and stay within the area.” At the time, Ziefert said, “I have five active buyers in this category right now!”
Ziefert also wrote that senior clients had a preference for smaller homes and floor plans and were seeking housing options that “allow for access to public transportation and within walking distance of shopping, entertainment and services similar to the ‘millennial’ generation.”
Discovering what seniors want and need in housing and public services is something that both towns are hoping to learn more about through that $35,000 Grotta Fund grant.
“The first stage is a needs-assessment survey where we sit down and discuss the strengths and weaknesses and ways we can improve what we offer in our towns,” Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca told the News-Record in December. “I think that’s very important for us because I don’t think that we have maximized the service opportunities for our seniors, and we need to reach out to the seniors that we haven’t really reached out to yet and get them involved.”
With seniors constituting approximately 15% of each town’s population, it’s an important segment to serve and retain. Seniors will be enlisted to serve on a local steering committee for the Grotta Fund grant, helping to evaluate existing services and then assess areas for improvement. Maplewood and South Orange will then apply for a phase-two grant (a maximum amount of $75,000 per year over a three-year period) to implement a phase-one action plan.
As South Orange Village President Sheena Collum told the News-Record: “What is critical, and what I believe impressed the Grotta Fund in evaluating our application, is the firm commitment made by South Orange and Maplewood to not only implement but also sustain the Age Friendly Action Plan to ensure that we permanently improve and enhance the quality of life for our seniors.”