BETHLEHEM — While the town’s Senior Services Department has long offered programs and information for residents aged 60 and up, its director, Jane Sanders, expressed concern, however, that not many people may even be aware of its existence or resources.
“We’ve always felt like we’re the best kept secret in town but we don’t want to be,” Sanders said. “A lot of times, people don’t look into Senior Services until there is a problem or an issue. People have come up to say that we have great things to offer yet they didn’t always know we were right here.” She further compared the department’s situation to how a person does not typically know about childcare services until they have a new baby and need them.
Senior Services is located at Town Hall on 445 Delaware Ave. in rooms 110 and 116. It is open on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Among the ways Senior Services communicates with the public about what it offers includes a section on the town’s website, a bi-monthly newsletter and word of mouth. Bethlehem Town Board member Joyce Becker, who started helping the department grow in 1986 with founder Karen Pelletier, said she remembered she had been in charge of recruiting volunteers at the time as part of an overall dream “for people to age in place and live in Bethlehem.”
She added, “Even to this day, I pick something out of Jane’s newsletter and announce it at every single Town Board meeting.”
Senior Services, first created in 1978 by Pelletier who was a volunteer then, was originally under the Parks and Recreation Department. It separated from the latter in 1989 due to rising demand for services and programs. It has since grown to have a number of paid staff and more than 100 volunteers today; volunteers are recruited to help keep the department’s costs low.
“Volunteers usually recruit other volunteers and we tend to have long-lasting staff,” said Gerald Schimanski, Senior Projects’ treasurer, who first got involved in 2004. Also, Sanders and Becker have been involved for 17 years and around three decades respectively.
Senior Projects, a non-profit organization, works closely with Senior Services to help with fundraising for things not within the latter’s budget. Examples include helping to raise money for Senior Services vans and cars; paying for those drivers’ hats, jackets, shirts and IDs; supporting the town’s food pantry; and paying for certain programs at the Bethlehem Public Library including the Coffee and Conversation series.
Sanders brought up how the department — offering almost 40 programs and services — helps connect seniors with library programs, encourage them to go out for lunch, help with delivering groceries if transportation is difficult and keep things social by celebrating birthday parties and more.
Senior Services also offers financial, legal and utility assistance which can help seniors with enrollment for Medicare-related health insurances and prescription drug plans; a grant program to help pay a household’s energy bill in the winter months; a program to help with a household’s insulation, weather stripping and furnace improvement; and the potential to help low-income people with their telephone bills. Certain qualifying seniors can also have food stamp assistance, Farmer’s Markets coupons, and access to the Bethlehem Food Pantry — the latter is only available by appointment for emergency or temporary food needs.
Seniors can also access health and wellness programs, like help with their prescription costs, listening to visiting guest speakers regarding health, and a brochure about senior physical exercise programs. In addition, the department can provide information on in-town housing options and connect seniors with social groups for networking and support. Seniors can also take advantage of special day trips for dinners, theater shows, monthly shopping center trips and more.
These resources offer just a snapshot of what Senior Services offers and to learn more, visit www.townofbethlehem.org/145/Senior-Services or call 518-439-4955 ext.1176.
“Without a doubt, every person who has continuously used our services say, ‘I don’t know how we got around without these services,’” Schimanski said. “They’re so thrilled that there’s something out there and their kids or grandkids don’t have to drive them around because they’re doing their own things.”
Regarding his latter point, Sanders noted that transporting seniors throughout town for their errands or medical appointments is one of the department’s highlights. She said the department currently has five cars and four vans, two of which are wheelchair-accessible.
“All the current vans are in need of replacement. The vans are pretty much the same age and at the height of their mileage,” Sanders said, adding that the vans have a lifespan of eight to 10 years. “The town is purchasing a new van in 2020 if the town budget passes. Senior Projects will be purchasing a new van in 2020 too through a grant because we need it and separately, before the end of this year, we have an extra van that’s already on order.”
While Sanders added that Senior Projects has plans for a future fundraiser to help buy a van next year, Schimanski said each van would cost around $65,000 and Becker said it would take about a year to raise the needed funds and at least another six months to receive an ordered van.
“We’re here, call us, stop by. We know all the resources around,” Sanders said. “It’s our goal to help people age in place.” Schimanski connected this with the department’s motto, “Community-Engaged as We Age.”
Becker chimed in and said it’s important for people to research what their respective town offers in terms of resources and programs. Regarding working at Senior Services, she added, “It sounds so easy but it takes a lot of work. It takes many hands in this community to make this service run and I’m thankful for the town government and non-profit who have partnered to make it what it is.”