Tens of thousands of Fresno’s senior citizens are getting a raw deal. It’s nothing new, and they’re used to it. Old folks in the city represent a group that has never been given the attention they deserve, despite the tens of millions of tax dollars they paid into City Hall coffers over decades. The city has no senior center and offers only limited activities for old people. We face a crisis as a community: What is the city going to do about it?
It’s almost too late to do anything to benefit members of the “Greatest Generation,” who have been retired for decades, but the city can act, either on its own or in conjunction with other agencies, in time to provide services to the thousands of “Baby Boomers” who have only begun retiring in the last six years or so.
According to a recent American Community Survey, there are more than 73,000 people older than 60 in Fresno, making up more than 14.2 percent of the total population. Many of them can afford to travel and enjoy a comfortable retirement, but there’s no question many more of them, cash-strapped and on a fixed income, cannot.
As the City Council member representing Fresno’s District 7, issues regarding old people are of particular interest to me. My district is home to the Fresno Madera Area Agency on Aging, FMAAA for short, and I sit on the organization’s board of directors. The folks at FMAAA are passionate about their mission, which is primarily providing home-delivered and group meals, and other vital services like family caregiver support and elder-abuse prevention. The mostly grant-funded FMAAA is effective at shouldering its heavy burden, but it cannot take on much more.
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Not far from the FMAAA campus is Manchester Center, home to the Fresno Unified School District’s Adult School. Here the district provides classes to adults, and offers discounted courses for senior citizens 55 and older such as aerobics and dance. The classes are popular with seniors living in neighborhoods in the center of the city.
Formerly at the mall was a lounge where seniors could sip coffee, go online, chat, play games, and read the newspaper, but the facility wasn’t officially a senior center. In recent months, the school district shuttered the lounge without notice, leaving old folks out in the cold. A number of them complained to my office that since the closing, they are without anything to do, as the room served as an important social hub for them. (The district should find a way to reopen the room until an alternative can be found.)
What’s worse, other Valley communities put Fresno to shame when it comes to providing services to seniors. The city of Clovis has a dedicated facility that’s open Monday through Friday. Yoga, watercolor, music and other classes are offered, as well as transportation. Small cities Orange Cove, Huron and Kingsburg also have dedicated senior centers where classes are available, or retired folks can just hang out and play dominoes and bingo.
The plight of Fresno’s seniors becomes even more depressing when comparably sized cities are examined. Bakersfield operates two centers. Long Beach has six. Sacramento has one. It’s clear that for generations, Fresno’s leaders have placed issues related to aging in our city on the back burner – and left them there.
Fresno Unified’s Adult School and the FMAAA are examples of organizations that are doing what they can to help seniors, but they can’t shoulder the burden alone. (It’s important to note that any money the school district spends on seniors is money that doesn’t go into kids’ classrooms – a fact district officials are quick to point out.)
So what can we do? The effort starts with a communitywide discussion about the plight of the aged in Fresno, and everyone needs to be a part of it. Community groups and nonprofit organizations are active in agitating for children’s issues, for parks and green space, for improved city infrastructure, for immigrants, for trees, for trails, for improved housing and other very worthy causes, but there is no one who visits council members’ offices regularly on behalf of seniors. That’s too bad.
I have less than two years left on the council, and I will make it a priority in my final months to bring issues affecting seniors to the forefront of the discussion in our city. This forgotten group – representing all races, creeds, religions and income levels – has paid through the nose to create the amenities we all take for granted, and it’s time we pay them back.
In the coming weeks, I will work to convene a communitywide task force to study retired persons’ needs and look for ways a proper senior center can be achieved. I will invite government officials, nonprofits, and churches to participate.
Locating funding in a time when governments are cash-strapped must be addressed. But it will be worth it. Go to any senior meals site in central Fresno and look at the people there. Visit with them, and tell me my timing’s bad.
Clinton J. Olivier represents District 7 on the Fresno City Council. Email: District7@fresno.gov