The drama surrounding the closure of the Ida Benderson Center continues
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
As the mayor and the Common Council haggle over the future of the Ida Benderson Senior Center, a pair of Syracuse’s most noted experts on aging brings us a grim message: This may be just the beginning.
The Benderson Center, 205 S. Salina St., has been serving as a gathering place for seniors for nearly four decades. Mayor Stephanie Miner announced last month that the center would close on Oct. 1 to save the city the $10,000 monthly rent. She thinks the seniors will do just as well down the road at the Salvation Army, but the Army isn’t sure they have the funds to take up the slack.
The seniors themselves oppose the move, some of them going as far as to shave their heads on the sidewalk to protest the cuts. The entire Common Council, most of them members of Miner’s party, rose up in revolt, holding up legislation dear to the mayor to express their displeasure. The councilors oppose the cuts but principally appear miffed that they were never consulted.
Dr. Alejandro Garcia, a gerontologist and for the past 34 years a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Social Work, says that he has not seen a situation like the closing of Ida Benderson. “You usually don’t hear about places like this closing down, you hear about them opening up. Today we are a country where one person in eight is old; by 2035 it will be one in five. Any futurist would be calling for more, not less, geriatric services.”
According to Dr. Sharon Brangman, who heads up the Division of Geriatric medicine at SUNY Upstate, “All I see ahead are hard times, and it’s the poor and the vulnerable taking the brunt of these cuts.”
Brangman believes that seniors moved from Benderson to the Salvation Army will be all right, saying that seniors are more flexible than we sometimes think. “Older people suffer and have health setbacks when they are relocated from their residences,” she says, “or shuffled between nursing homes and hospitals, but changing the location of a drop-in center doesn’t raise any alarm from a health standpoint.”
On the other hand, Garcia, the social worker, sees the loss of familiarity as daunting for many seniors. “As you get older,” he says, “change can be traumatic. Even if the new place is nice, it’s different. In a center you have been frequenting for 10 or 20 years, you’ve been bonding with friends, you have a familiar chair, you know what to expect. The fact that people call the center a second home is significant—you have to listen to that.”
Where the doctor and the social worker find common ground is this: Programs for seniors need more funding.
“I understand that we have limited resources, but if people become less mobile their care is much more costly,” says Brangman, who last year served as president of the American Geriatrics Society. “Moving them to the Salvation Army is better than nothing, but I would like to see a center like this kept open. People need choices—it’s not one size fits all.”
“There is the critical issue of finances,” says Garcia. “But you have to address the need for service as well. It appears that the financial cutbacks are what they are focused on.”
Meanwhile, the mayor says she will try to raise private money for the seniors moved to the Salvation Army. The group opposing the closure has brought in Bruce Benderson, son of the center’s namesake, to argue their case. What does he say? Let’s raise private money. Private money can never fill the gap for what is clearly a societal responsibility—to take care of the elderly.
Which brings us back to Dr. Brangman’s point, which Garcia echoes. “We are in a part of the state with a lot of older people, and more coming. As a nation we have 10,000 baby boomers turning age 65 every day. Unfortunately we have a lot of young people who move away. Old people use services in a proportionately higher way. We are going to see more and more of these financial issues come about. There’s a higher need for services, and fewer people to pay for them.
“We need a community discussion on how we plan for this—it can’t just be by reacting.” So far she says that dialogue isn’t happening anywhere. But the issue isn’t going to go away. Ultimately, says Dr. Brangman, “What we want is for Syracuse to be a nice place to age. Not everyone can be a snowbird.” t Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at edgriffin@ syracusenewtimes.com.