By Aimee Bingham Osinski email@example.com
“The quality of a society, I would say of a civilization, is judged by how well older people are treated and the place reserved for them in community life. Whoever makes room for the elderly, makes room for life. Whoever welcomes the elderly, welcomes life.” Pope Benedict XVI
I met Joanne Westman when I was introduced at the Dexter Community Forum two weeks ago. I should say, Joanne introduced herself to me with an urgency that made me take notice. She held a paper in her hand and immediately began pointing to numbers and explaining that something needed to be done about the Senior Center. With the uproar over the Avalon housing project and some turmoil on the Board of Education, I wouldn’t have taken a second glance at the Senior Center. By all accounts, it’s a successful, well run program; a little oasis for Seniors nestled right downtown. But Joanne wants to be heard. She needs help and it’s clear, knows how to get things done.
I went home with the Dexter Senior Center on my radar. And, upon examining the sheet she gave me, and recalling her urgent words, “we can’t afford to lease from anyone else; we’re not going to have a Senior Center if we don’t do something,” I scheduled a meeting. The only time we had available required I bring my four year-old daughter. I gambled she wouldn’t mind, based on her urgency, and I was right. Joanne welcomed us both with such warmth and kindness, my daughter immediately took to her.
We met at The Dexter Senior Center on a Friday right as it opened. There was a volunteer setting up big red insulated food delivery bags and cooking. I would later learn, she was preparing the day’s lunches for Dexter’s Meals on Wheels program, which provided 8089 meals from 2017-2018 to homebound clients in the Dexter area. The smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the air and Joanne offered me a tour of the space. The long front hall is lined with bookshelves organized by topics important to seniors. There are a multitude of large print books and as a person who has struggled with vision problems, I realize how valuable they are for seniors. There are shelves with games opposite the books as well as a space for informational fliers and handouts. The rest of the Senior Center is one, large open room with a kitchen attached. It’s the size of two elementary school classrooms put together. In the front right corner is a chair. Joanne explains there is no space for private meetings so the chair is their space for acupuncture, foot reflexology, foot care as well as expert help navigating medicare. She points to the shelf of weights and workout equipment on the opposite side of the door and says, “sometimes that’s happening with people working out.” Joanne tells me they can’t host meditation because it just wouldn’t work. She points to the tables and says that people like to play cards. I understand immediately. My grandmother used to have card parties and Euchre can get loud.
On the opposite side of the room, musical note stickers decorate a space on the wall. “This is where we have music classes.” She explains Seniors can learn dulcimer, join the Friends In Harmony Choir, or learn the ukulele. Yes, all in the same room that hosts fitness classes, card games and visits with the foot doctor. Joanne walks me to the door next to the musical notes. “This used to be our storage closet, but these looms were donated and….” Her voice trails off. Their only storage closet is now a makeshift craft room and in order for everything to work, things are constantly being moved around and dragged in and out of the room. When we walk in, there's barely enough space for the two of us to fit without bumping into each other.
Joanne is gracious. She tells me that in 1966 the Dexter Senior Center leased the space for a dollar from the Dexter Community School District. She emphasizes that without Dexter Schools, there would be no Senior Center. But, they’ve outgrown the space, clearly, and it’s being sold. They might not have a space at all. Compounding the problem, is that Baby Boomers are now seniors. SEMCOG estimates that between 2015 and 2045 the population of seniors (65 and older) will increase by 323% in Washtenaw County. The senior population is growing and the Dexter Senior Center has an excellent director in Wendy Smith. Under her direction the Senior Center has doubled its membership in three years and increased it’s congregate meal program, meals served at the center, by 420%. Joanne is aware that behind a thriving senior center, is an urgent need. When a community experiences growth like Dexter has, the schools typically face growing pains that must be addressed before they become unmanageable. The aging Baby Boomers are creating the same issue within the Senior Center and Joanne Westman is fighting to get the help she needs.
Ideally, since there’s talk of a new fire station and city building, the seniors would move there and make the space more efficient. But, that has yet to be discussed. As of right now, the City Council uses the Senior Center for meetings after the Senior Center closes. Allowing the Seniors to utilize the building and some of the rooms would maximize the cost benefit for the entire community. But the plan for now is to negotiate a contract to stay in the current, overcrowded space for the next few years. There are sometimes 60 people doing 5 different activities in the single room, and as the population grows, it will only get worse. Joanne and the rest of the Dexter Senior Center Board are doing everything they can to ensure the issue is addressed in time.
This will be the first in a series about the Dexter Senior Center