It was May 1, 1989, when Marilyn Place walked into the Senior Center at 14 Riverside Road. A mother of two “who volunteered all over the place,” Ms Place was stepping into a part-time position as coordinator of programs, working under Senior Center director Marvi Fast. She had no idea that within weeks, with Ms Fast out on an extended sick leave, she would be catapulted into a position as acting director, and that two years later, she would find herself in the top position.
“Twenty-five years went by like this,” exclaimed Ms Place, snapping her fingers. Seated in her office, where piles of papers and craft materials adorn every surface, and mementos given to her by Senior Center members serve as décor, she reflected on the quarter of a century of serving and loving Newtown’s senior citizens.
Working with senior citizens has come very naturally to her, Ms Place said.
“I came from a big family, with five brothers and sisters. My dad was an ex-Marine, and we had a lot of structure. We all worked together, and at the end of the day, there was a happy family. That kind of background,” she said, “helped make me what I am today.”
Giving structure to the day, working together, and embracing happiness are all skills that make directing the Senior Center a doable proposition, she said.
“There is so much to do and there’s always so much more to do. There is always a new cycle of people who need something a little different. Who would have thought 25 years ago,” she asked, “that we would have Tai Chi classes, or Zumba Gold classes here?”
In 1989, she came into a very family-oriented situation, she said, which worked out well for the young mother.
“My kids would walk over from Sandy Hook Elementary School to be with me, after school. I taught art, crafts, ran the widow/widower support group, the current events group, and developed the day trip programs,” she recalled.
Ms Place also helped form the Senior Center Mission, as well as the Senior Center Policy. Early on, Ms Place also worked with the town on planning the first of two additions she would oversee in the next two decades. Space, she said, has always been an issue for the ever-growing population of the Senior Center.
“In 1989, there were around 300 seniors coming here each month. Now, we have 1,200 to 1,600 coming through each month, mainly because of our programming. Today, 90 is definitely the new 70. [Senior citizens] are focused on being young. There is more education out there to keep them fit,” she said.
There are also many more programs at Newtown Senior Center to keep members fit, than the one exercise video the center had when Ms Place started.
“We offer 40 different classes each month that are exercise oriented, from yoga and chair yoga, to dance. We have top-notch, certified teachers,” said Ms Place, and that has been a draw for the male membership. “The way older people look at life now is different than 25 years ago. We’re not sitting around here knitting and waiting to die,” she said.
Finding programs that attract the smaller, male population of the Senior Center is a challenge, Ms Place said. Chess clubs, computer classes, and the Men’s Club come and go. Still, it is not uncommon to see a table of mixed men and women playing cards, painting, or taking part in the holiday activities.
As the Senior Center evolved, Ms Place has been able to bring in programs from around the community and the region.
“Networking with other senior center directors, senior services, and community businesses has helped me to develop the programming,” said Ms Place, who strives for a balance in giving out information on different levels, by bringing in various professional speakers to address an issue. “We have speakers to address finances, fraud, Medicare, driving, health screenings, and all of the other concerns people have as they age,” she said.
Keeping the members interested in the community and the world at large has been achieved through intergenerational programs, as well as the recently renewed current events group.
“My job has been drawing them out more into the community, and helping them maintain their places in the community,” she said.
Newtown Senior Center is about fun and friendship, as well as learning, Ms Place said.
“There have been a lot of good things, like the parties at Dickinson Park, and the trips to Radio City Music Hall,” she said. The day, in August 2011, the center got a new van was a cause for celebration.
“I love seeing the friendships that develop here. Once someone comes in and sees what is here, and becomes involved, they develop these lasting friendships,” Ms Place said.
Planning day trips was one of her original assignments, and one that gained quickly in popularity.
“The day trips are the reason you usually see me wearing a scarf. I have a collection of about 25 brightly colored scarves now,” Ms Place laughed. The scarves come in handy when she needs to signal her group of travelers. “If they see someone twirling a scarf in a crowd, they can find me,” she said. Her scarf trick nearly ended her up in handcuffs, one time, she chuckled.
“I was twirling my scarf and yelling, ‘Newtown Seniors! Over here!’ when a New York police officer grabbed my arm, twisted it behind my back, and accused me of soliciting,” Ms Place said. To make matters worse, the group traveling with her thought it would be humorous to tell the police officer they had no idea who she was. “They thought it was funny, but I didn’t think so,” she said. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, Ms Place, her scarf, and her fellow travelers were back on the bus and headed back to Newtown and more adventures.
“I took a group of them schooner sailing off of Old Mystic once, and that was a great time. There is just a joy of traveling in them,” she said. In 1992, she arranged for the first Newtown Senior Center trip abroad, for 22 of the members. Touring six countries over a six-week period, it was the first of many more trips and cruises worldwide that she would arrange through tour companies.
“Every day is memorable,” she said, reeling off more memories of the past two decades. “We used to have the holiday party at the Fireside on Route 25, and all the staff would dress up like elves. We would wrap presents for other seniors in town who might be housebound and deliver them wearing our elf outfits. Then there is the annual Harvest Bazaar,” she said. “That has been a joy,” she said, creating camaraderie.
It’s About People
Over the years, Marilyn Place’s job has always been about the people, though.
“I’m a friend, a plumber, a teacher, a confidante, and a counselor. I wear all kinds of hats,” Ms Place said, while taking on the constant challenge of having enough funding and enough space to do the things the membership wants and needs.
She has also become astute at observing the members. Knowing them by name, knowing about their friends and families, and understanding what is happening in their lives outside of the Senior Center helps her stay on top of what is best for their well-being, she said.
Having a positive attitude is a must for a senior center director, Ms Place said, but in dealing with an older generation, there will be times of solemnity.
“The hardest part of my job is when a productive member is failing,” she said. “I try to make it work with the help of the family. Then I try to help the family find outside sources when the person is no longer able to be a part of the Senior Center family. It’s very emotional,” Ms Place said. Fortunately, many more options and services exist today than the day she first started, she said.
Serious illnesses and death are also a part of the cycle at the Senior Center, and Ms Place has learned to facilitate those emotional moments, as well.
“Death and sickness are facts of life in aging. I try to accommodate it in a way that applies to the different needs of different people,” she said, not always an easy task. Patience is a virtue she has learned in the position of senior center director.
The events of 12/14 hit the members of the Senior Center hard, Ms Place said, and moving the membership through that day and the following weeks was the most difficult experience of her career, she said.
“Throughout the years, our seniors have done art and reading classes with the children at Sandy Hook School. So that day had a huge impact on the seniors, many of whom are grandparents,” Ms Place said. “The whole year of 2013 was about keeping them busy, keeping them focused on their health, and doing whatever it was that they needed,” she said. Being there to listen and talk, and having others to talk to, was vital to getting the members through the months that followed 12/14, she said.
As the membership and programming has evolved, so has the position of director.
“I’m more administrative now,” she said, and less hands-on in teaching the arts and crafts she loves. “I do still teach the quilting, though,” Ms Place said. “That’s a passion and I won’t give it up.”
She sees the future of Newtown Senior Center as being very bright.
“Newtown has always been a leader for seniors. We were one of the first to build an actual building for our Senior Center. Before that, Senior Centers used to be in a room somewhere, or the basement of a building. Our needs will be met,” she said.
She is pleased to have had the opportunity to interact with the many members who have passed through the doors of the Newtown Senior Center.
“I love the people. They come with a wealth of knowledge and experiences. The Senior Center is a cycle of life,” she said, “and one that I am happy to be part of.”