The small, coastal city of Belfast has a lot to offer its retirement-age residents: an attractive and walkable downtown, a vibrant arts scene, a duplicate bridge club, an active Maine Senior College center and more. One thing it hasn’t provided, until this week, is a designated senior center, a multipurpose gathering place for socialization, recreation, celebration and referral to community services.
That changed Tuesday morning, when a group of about 20 seniors gathered at The Boathouse, a city-owned venue on the waterfront, for the opening day of the brand new Belfast Senior Center. They ranged in age from their early 60s to 80 and older, with varying levels of physical ability and with a broad range of interests. They came together to demonstrate the need for such a center in Belfast and to begin discussing their ideas for how it should operate, in hopes of persuading the city to find a permanent home and some funding to support older residents of the Belfast area.
According to the National Council on Aging, senior centers can make a significant difference in the well-being of a community’s older residents.
“Research shows that older adults who participate in senior center programs can learn to manage and delay the onset of chronic disease and experience measurable improvements in their physical, social, spiritual, emotional, mental, and economic well-being,” the organization’s website states.
In Belfast, seniors hope to claim those benefits soon. In response to recent meetings, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation has agreed to allow area seniors to meet at The Boathouse every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., free of charge, while longer-term solutions are explored.
“The city has been gracious enough to give us this place through the end of March.” Clearly, it’s important that the group address long-term issues such as administration, funding and finding a permanent location, according to organizer Gloria Guyette, 73, of Belfast, who talked as she helped people get settled at tables in the attractive but bare-bones Boathouse. “But right now it’s more important that we spend some time getting to know each other,” she said. “What do want to do? What does it mean to us to have a senior center?”
She passed out pale green sticky notes and asked everyone to list the activities they’d like the new senior center to offer. As the slips of paper got filled in, Guyette posted them on a yellow signboard. “Scrabble.” “Movie night.” “Cards.” “Sing-along.” “Drop-in center.”
Conversation picked up over coffee and bagels as people discussed their interests. Many liked to play cards, but some were avid bridge players while others preferred canasta or Uno. Cribbage was popular, but a few individuals were more interested in chess. Guyette handed out word-search puzzles, sudoku grids and bright markers for coloring, but the lively conversation continued.
Ellie Groover is a native of Eastport who has lived in Belfast for the past 30 years. “The main thing is, as you grow older you need people around you to keep you active,” she said. “Otherwise, you get isolated and then you go downhill fast.”
Groover, who is 79, said she has visited friends in Florida and was impressed with the many opportunities to get together socially with other seniors. “Down there, they socialize all the time,” she said. “But no one seems to want to do it here, where we get closed in all winter.”
For Marcia Cooper, 62, the idea of a senior center fits into a larger vision of a supportive, intergenerational community of Belfast-area residents. It is typical of Belfast’s can-do spirit, she said, that committed seniors would “get in and do it themselves” rather than wait for the city to develop a structured plan.
But Jacquelyn Maines, 76, a retired mental health professional, said the group should not underestimate the need for structure, including a paid director with grant-writing skills and someone who can refer members to social programs such as fuel assistance and meal delivery services.
“This can’t be lackadaisical,” Maines cautioned. “There are a lot of very frail people here who really need the services of senior center.”
Carol Good, a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, said there’s little doubt of the need for a senior center in Belfast.
“We need a place for people to come together, a place to be with each other and share activities,” she said. “It needs to be safe, free and welcoming to all.” It also needs to be affordable, fully accessible for those with disabilities and have basic kitchen facilities. Possibilities she’s contemplating include area churches, empty storefronts and the former Crosby School, which recently was purchased for development into housing, performance space and community activities.
The Boathouse is just a temporary solution, said Belfast Parks and Recreation Director Norman Poirier, while seniors get organized and the city decides how to move forward. Come warmer weather, he said, the venue books up quickly with private events and becomes an important revenue stream for the city.
“The city is willing to support this project in the budget to some degree,” he said, and to help identify a suitable, long-term bricks-and-mortar home. Meanwhile, Poirier is querying other small Maine communities about their senior centers — including their location, funding and programming — and hopes to have ideas by spring for keeping the Belfast group together.
The Belfast Senior Center will be open on a drop-in basis every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., weather permitting, at The Boathouse on Commercial Street. All are welcome and encouraged to bring a brown-bag lunch. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.