Did you know that the greater Naples area has 57,000 seniors over 65? That 2,400 of them live below the poverty line? That 18 percent live alone? And that—if you can believe this—there was no senior center to serve them until a year and a half ago?
That is when Dr. Jaclynn Faffer established what is now known as the Naples Senior Center to provide services, food and companionship for anyone over 60 for a $15 membership fee. And it is thus that on a warm Wednesday in July I walked into the center on Castello Drive in Naples to witness the buzz and laughter of 120 seniors lunching on foods like tilapia and string beans or stir-fried beef all catered by Publix.
They were expecting a speaker—Mark Tesoro from Lee Memorial Health System to talk on fall prevention—but on other Wednesdays there are entertainers from sources like Artis—Naples and the East Naples Community Band. And, says Dr. Faffer, you’re likely to run into members like the woman whose husband had died three years before the center opened who hadn’t shared a meal with anyone until her first day at the center. This is no mere eating and socializing club, however. For members, there are art classes, computer training, tai chi, chair yoga, Maj Jong. And mental health support services abound—including counseling on anxiety, depression, dementia, caregiving and family relationships. “My case manager visits me regularly,” says one man who is a member. “I feel secure knowing she is there when I need her.”
The idea for the center began germinating four years ago when Dr. Faffer, then working at Jewish Family and Community Services, got a call from a man in New York wanting to find a senior center in the area for his 100-year-old mother. “I was shocked that there was no such thing here,” Dr. Faffer says. A year later, as chairperson of the Leadership Coalition on Aging (30 nonprofits working with seniors), she got the group to commission a study by the Florida Gulf Coast University Division of Social Work to see if there was a local need for a senior center. The short answer from the study, says Dr. Faffer, is that older adults are alone and lonely. Much planning and action ensued.
Flash forward to late January in 2014. See Dr. Faffer and three part-time workers in their partially built-out two-story building on Castello starting to act on big plans with just a $400,000 budget. Today, thanks to financial support from the Community Foundation of Collier County and private donors—and a lot of hard work—there are 700 members being served. Who are they? Seventy-four percent are between 70 and 89; 78 percent are single, widowed or divorced; 52 percent live alone; 25 percent are below the federal poverty line; and 47 percent are slightly above that line but have difficulty making ends meet, and one emergency can put them over the edge.
Dr. Faffer certainly brings credentials as the driving force behind the center. “At 16,” she says, “I knew I wanted to be a social worker.” And, boy, has she stuck to her mission. She’s got three college degrees, including a Doctor of Social Welfare certification from Yeshiva University in New York, has had a clinical practice and has done administration, teaching and research as well.
Now she can tell stories about the woman in her 70s whose doctor referred her to the center. She had been a school teacher, never married and had cared for her parents until they passed away. “She came to us with great anxiety,” Dr. Faffer says. “I’d see her reading and playing Solitaire on the computer. One night I ran into her at the Art After Dark event down at Crayton Cove. She was with some women. ‘These are my friends,’ she said, introducing them. ‘I met them at the center.’ Now she’s here every weekday at the center, arriving at 9:30 and leaving at 4:30.”
Then there’s the bereaved gentleman who tried the Wednesday lunch gathering but felt it wasn’t for him. He thought he might enjoy being a volunteer and serving the members at lunch. And he got interested in the writer’s club at the center. “Can I be a member and still be a volunteer serving at lunch?” he asked Dr. Faffer. Of course, she said. “Now he had structure, companionship and purpose in his life,” Dr. Faffer says. These are the senior moments she’s pushing … with many more, she hopes, to come.