'Build it and they will stay:' Official backs Westport seniors' housing/care complex
Visitors on any weekday or Saturday morning to the Westport Center for Senior Activities on Imperial Avenue will find that the place lives up to its name.
People, 60 years old and over, bustle through the center on their way to yoga and Pilates sessions. Others carry books, as they emerge from Spanish and French classes. And there's usually a spirited game of pinochle, bridge or Mah-Jong under way in the lobby as players shuffle cards and discard tiles.
In the midst of all this activity is Sue Pfister, who has served as the center's director since it opened in 2004. When not developing new programs and attending to general administrative duties, Pfister often attends classes, as she seeks to maintain a running dialogue with participants.
In recent months, one topic has dominated conservation at the center: a proposed senior living complex and health-care facility on the town-owned Baron's South property, which would be located adjacent to the center.
The plan, submitted by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, received preliminary backing from the Planning and Zoning Commission last October. Joseloff will next present a zoning text amendment to the P&Z at a public hearing Thursday night that would pave the way for construction of the facilities. The session is set for 7 p.m. in Town Hall.
Pfister, 47, sat down with the Westport News last week to discuss the Baron's South project, the future of the senior center, as well as the major issues facing the town's 5,000-plus seniors.
Q: What is the role that the director plays at the center?
A: "I think it's about being a good listener and offering programs that the seniors want. It's their building, not mine. I want to listen and always be available to their ideas. Our seniors are well-versed and well-traveled.
They also like to be challenged mentally, which is part of the equation of staying healthy and aging well. We try to bring in a lot of college professors, lots of arts programs.
And this morning we did a class called `Brain Gym,' which is stimulating the brain in an attempt to keep one's mind active and healthy and to slow down the process of dementia."
Q: Why does Westport need a dedicated senior living complex?
A: "This type of residential community that's on the table can assure people that they can move into a rental unit, be independent and then, God forbid something happens, they know that on the same compound of land they can get their needs met. It's a continuum of care that this proposal offers. I think it's a huge unmet need in the town of Westport.
"We really need to find a way to keep them in our community. We've lost a lot of seniors who've moved out of Westport to surrounding communities because they can offer what this text amendment is offering. I just don't think as a community we can afford to lose any more seniors.
"With the senior center we all said, `Build it and they will come.' With the housing proposal I say, `Build it so they can stay.' "
Q: What are the main reasons that senior citizens move out of Westport?
A: "I think it's a combination. A spouse may become ill and there's really not a respectful, appropriate facility in town where they feel their needs can be met.
"It's hard to downsize in Westport. If people want to sell their homes, there really aren't too many options. I think at this stage in their lives, people want to make one more move, not two or three."
Q: How has this year's harsh winter affected Westport seniors?
A: "There's been a big struggle about maintaining a house. I think this winter really has pushed a couple of people to their wits' end, especially if people are living alone. They just don't know who to turn to. They've been faced with issues that some of them have never faced with ice dams and leaks and roof problems."
Q: How will the growth of Westport's senior population affect the center?
A: "I think it'll challenge me to grow the program. It's exciting; I think it'll give us the opportunity to come up with creative programming and different hours.
"I could see an early-morning program or an evening program or working collaboratively with another department -- maybe Parks and Rec -- to expand our hours. I see it as being nothing but positive."
Q: What are the main misconceptions about senior citizens?
A: "That they're poor, frail, not capable of doing much, troublesome, sick, and it's quite the opposite. They're vibrant, fun and filled with a wealth of knowledge of history. They're curious, wanting to learn new things. An 85-year-old will take our beginning Spanish class -- they're not afraid to take on a new challenge.
"And there are a lot of participants who are totally healthy. You can be of any age and really not suffer with anything because people are doing a much better job of taking care of themselves."