January 10, 2018

Theresa Java/Free Press 
The JOY Center's mahjong learning and playing session during its first weekly event was well-attended. 

Theresa Java/Free Press  The JOY Center's mahjong learning and playing session during its first weekly event was well-attended. 

PLANTATION KEY — Senior centers act as a community focal point and are one of the most widely used services among older Americans, according to the National Council on Aging. The large number of attendees at the JOY Center’s first weekly program last week evidenced that.

“We know if we ever get a senior center, we will need parking for at least 50. People just keep coming and coming,” said attendee Diane Schleider.

JOY, which is an acronym for Just Older Adults, was founded by the Upper Keys Life Enrichment Coalition and Keys to Peace to offer the community a place to grow, learn and make friends. It will run for a total of 14 weeks to start.

There’s no brick-and-mortar center, but Pastor Will King has donated the use of his Pearl House of Worship, tucked away in the Tavernaero neighborhood on Plantation Key, for the weekly gathering this season.

Every Wednesday through April 11, there will be a day devoted to older citizens. The schedule will vary from week to week, but organizer Betsy Baste promises it to be social and engaging.

A sample schedule starts with a coffee social hour at 9 a.m., then a speaker may be brought in on a topic, while simultaneously a tai chi class is offered. After lunch, a technology class is offered while a game or social event is going on. Last week, Mahjong was taught and played in groups. Finally, a movie and popcorn are offered and the program breaks around 3 p.m.

“We saw a need for a senior center like this one, like ones throughout the country,” Baste said about creating the center. “This comes from people in our group, like snowbirds or people who have moved here. They say they’re beautiful and inviting in other parts of the country.”

She describes the county’s Plantation Key Senior Center as too small and dilapidated, and she is not impressed with plans to relocate that facility’s services to the former Tavernier schoolhouse. In April, the county earmarked more than $500,000 to renovate the 80-year-old building, which offers almost 2,000 square feet of space.

“It’s not adequate,” Baste said.

Sixty-eight people attended last week’s program, and that’s not including those who didn’t sign in, according to JOY Center co-founder Denise Downing.

She said several people went straight to the Mahjong table without signing in, while others just stopped by to check it out.

“People were saying things like ‘this is so great to have’ and ‘it’s such a gloomy day, if I didn’t have this, I would’ve just gone back to bed,’” Downing said.

Downing said the center is inclusive. It is open to any adult who’d like to participate. She’s hoping to see the center grow and find a home of its own.

“Our thinking was to create a prototype of what we want, and we obviously struck a chord,” Downing said.

To her, the words ‘senior’ and ‘aging’ are bad.

“Seniors today are different than years ago. I still feel like I’m in my 30s,” she said. “There is a real need for something like this. We have to work in tandem with the county to apply for grant money.”

The county’s senior centers are federally funded by the Older Americans Act Grant, which authorizes six types of programs: supportive services and senior centers; congregate nutritional services; home-delivered nutrition services; nutrition services incentive grants; disease prevention and health promotion; and family caregiver support services.

By law, the county’s senior centers only need to serve food. They don’t have to provide any other services.

Baste is calling for more than just a meal. 

“With Hurricane Irma disrupting our lives, we know our commissioners have their hands full. We get that. Rather than wait around, we figured we would start with the JOY Center,” she said.

National Council on Aging statistics show that 10.2 million older Americans are faced daily with the threat of hunger, representing 15.8 percent of adults over 60 years old in the U.S. Research also shows that older adults who participate in senior center programs can better manage or delay the onset of chronic disease and experience measurable improvements in their physical, social, spiritual, emotional, mental and economic well-being.

The Joy Center’s program begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday at 161 Pearl Ave. For more information, email Baste at uklecinc@gmail.com or call 706-982-9615.

tjava@keysnews.com