Greenwich House Responds to City’s Senior Centers Proposal

In August, the New York City Department for the Aging published a concept paper outlining their vision for how senior centers could evolve in the city over the next few years. The paper is available to read here. Councilwoman Margaret Chin invited Greenwich House Director of Senior Services, Judy Levin to testify before City Council about how these proposed changes might affect our centers. After hearing the other testimonials and hosting a virtual town hall for the members of our Senior Centers to share their thoughts about the paper, Ms. Levin submitted her response on behalf of Greenwich House. We urge the Council to consider the following as they envision the future of Senior Centers:

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the recently released Concept Paper related to our City’s network of programs and places supporting community elders and older adults.

Greenwich House, a settlement house based in Greenwich Village, has been providing a range of services to our immediate community and beyond for over 117 years. We have four DFTA funded senior centers located throughout the Village and Tribeca, ( Center on the Square, Our Lady of Pompeii, Judith C. White, Independence Plaza) as well as mental health and arts/culture services particularly focused on supporting older adults.

Before we get into the substance of our thoughts, we do need to note that the timing of this review – amid a local and global COVID-19 health crisis, and the related economic crisis that is engulfing our city and state – creates noteworthy concerns. And while we welcome the chance to rethink how we and others are delivering these most essential and important services to older adults, there are clear
limitations to this type of planning given the variables posed by this pandemic.

To state the obvious, COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the ongoing challenges to seniors, as well as the network of community-serving providers supporting this population. Older adults have been faced with increasing social isolation, difficulty accessing needed health care services, and ongoing issues related to food insecurity to name several key challenges. And current and future City and State budget
challenges surely create uncertainties that cast a shadow over this entire exploration and planning.

That all said, we are generally energized by many of the approaches and improvements suggested in the Concept Paper, while also being concerned about the lack of framework for how the ideas and thoughts might fit together and how providers will be supported in executing some of the new approaches suggested. More specifically:

Expanding populations of participants:
The movement towards drawing in a wider range of older adults, and drawing in seniors earlier in their own life journey, points to a much needed more intentionally open approach to our evolving communities. We welcome the opportunity to rethink our spaces, and range of program offerings, to be more mindful to attracting a diverse cohort of older adults.

We agree and appreciate the suggested focus on reducing any stigmas or misimpressions that might exist about who these spaces and programs have been developed to support. We need to make sure these spaces are authentically open and thoughtfully programmed to be a welcoming destination for all.

This is important to make sure these spaces are seen as supports for everyone in our communities, and particularly important when thinking about “younger seniors” who will be the next generation of aging New Yorkers in need of this safety net; but, in doing so, we want to be sure that we do not do this at the expense of important health and wellness needs of our most vulnerable older adults. It is unclear at present whether and how the budgets for our centers will be directed to discern between these two approaches to populations, needs and supports.

Additionally, as we feel strongly that limited public resources should remain largely focused on supporting and assisting those most in need – those who might be experiencing food insecurity, housing instability, along with physical, emotional, and mental health issues – it is worth noting that the majority of our members we have surveyed historically, and more recently, note that the most important elements they seek and appreciate from these centers and programs are socialization, community, and caring connections to others. Also noted by a majority of the center members we serve, the nomenclature of “Senior” for many has gravitas; it is not necessarily a taboo label.

Online Programming
In response to COVID we have pivoted most of our programs and programming to Zoom and other online platforms which has created a life line for many of our members. In seeing the positive responses from our members we agree that this should be an important component of older adult programming in the future, but it has required enormous time and effort to implement and maintain – and has only been possible because all of us have directed our attention to new online programming. So while we would like to continue to expand and strengthen this newly found channel to many in our community, it remains unclear if actual support (financial or otherwise) for this will be included as part of a central support system or direct support in provider contracts and budgets. In addition this brings up the need for so many of older adults without devices or internet access to make the programs accessible to all.

Real Estate Challenges
Many of the challenges we face as community service providers in this City are directly related to the challenge of finding the right type of space at an affordable price point. The types of spaces and places we have available to us determines, and often limits, the levels of programming and services we are able to offer our communities. The idea of pursuing site-specific innovative models and approaches appears to recognize these challenges and how much the places in which we host these programs dictate the audiences we attract, the programs we can provide, and the strength of the community we can foster.

Our older adults deserve to be in spaces which allow them to receive a range of necessary services and programming. We see this as another area that deserves serious creative rethinking in the approach to programming models for these valuable community services.

Innovative Models
As much as we all strive to provide a comprehensive set of services and supports our Senior Centers, the site-specific models presented in the Concept Paper are innovative and reflect many of the needs and preferences long expressed by members of our community. This includes the suggestion of a Wellness Model, a Café Model, A Life Long Learning Model. The idea that centers and spaces might be
redesigned to focus on specific needs is promising; BUT the suggestion also raises critical questions about 1) how we might be asked or permitted to weave several such sites together to ensure that we provide a comprehensive range of services to meet needs, and 2) how this approach would work in practice.

For example: we at Greenwich House presently administer four different senior centers, in close proximity but at four different spaces, and with separate contracts with the City. Each of these sites creates different logistical opportunities and challenges, but in the present model, we are generally expected to provide the same approach to required programming and supports at each site. Under a reimagined model would we be expected to create a network of sites that better utilizes each site and *together* provides a comprehensive set of services and supports; or alternatively, might we end up securing one contract for service to create one site focusing on health, wellness, physical exercise, etc. and another focused on culture and the arts, but without a “comprehensive” set of services and supports available to the community?

By creating a network of comprehensive services, we would be ensuring that all the required elements of the contract ( ie. meals, health promotion, physical exercise, arts) are provided across the network; we would be able to reduce duplication and provide a richer and wider set of services and programs.

However, it is not clear how an agency such as GH with multiple sites, would approach the RFP process ; would we get one contract for each site or would we apply for each site separately? If we applied for each contract separately would we then need to pick a particular model for each proposal and be bound to only providing those services and programs?

Expanding and Funding Other Supports
Increasing elements like partnerships, marketing and data management – all mentioned in this Concept Paper – would surely strengthen our centers and be integral to maintaining our level of services, identifying developing needs and expanding our reach to the community. BUT is that envisioned as a new requirement that center providers need to figure out on their own, or is the “concept” to also give
budget and supports to each center to bring in that type of expertise and talent? And, importantly, what would be the fate of centers without strong partnership options? Surely, we don’t want them to be hurt because some parts of our city might have more partnership prospects available, for example.

Our recommendation would be to 1) create centralized resources, within DFTA or elsewhere in the city, that can provide these types of supports (partnership, marketing and data management) to contracted providers as needed, or 2) increase budgets to senior centers to hire staff that can provide these skills and experience. There is no doubt that there are strong partnerships available to these centers, and that better marketing will help centers connect with neighbors who could most benefit from these city investments. And to be clear, our centers (and many others) have already been striving to do more in all of these areas – often times with some notable success. But if we wish to dramatically expand the potential of these approaches we can not realistically expect our current staff (who are social service
and health care professionals) to suddenly become expert in communications and data analytics.

Contracting, Units of Service, and Measuring Outcomes
We welcome a discussion about how new contracting models of measures of success will benefit all involved in these systems, funders, providers and community/clients. At present this work is measured largely as basic calculations of outputs, and most agree that while some of that is useful, a far more interesting perspective would be to review this work and these investments through a lens of longer-term outcomes related to the health, finances, and general wellness of clients and community.

This approach, taking a longer-term view to the investment and the work, can also carry to the discussion of contracting itself. At present providers generally receive a contract for up to three years of work (provided they remain in good standing and the need persists), but in practice the vast majority of those who under these RFPs do remain in good standing and therefor carry these contracts for well over
six – 10 years. This reality, having providers continue to seek three-year contracts, creates numerous inefficiencies that could be resolved with an alternative approach that would create an initial longer-term contract (for six to ten years), with regular reporting and screening to remain in good standing, but with the presumption that if the services are being administered appropriately the contract would
continue. This is, admittedly, a radically different approach to how contracts with local social/health service providers are managed; but if we are trying to reimagine how these centers operate we also need to reimagine how government contracts and partners with this network of providers.

We appreciate the opportunity to share some of our thoughts and observations on this important step to rethink the resources and approaches we deploy in order to support our older and aging neighbors.

As a reference point to just how important these spaces and services are, we’ll note that even as we need to work to improve these spaces and services, and even as this population stands as the most vulnerable in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, our members whom we have heard from in recent member meetings and a community wide Town Hall, could not be more eager to return to these spaces where they find comfort, stimulation, social supports, purpose and community.