Open seven days a week, the canteen is bustling inside the Aging and Disability Resource Center in Wausau. By 10 am, the room typically fills with about two dozen men and women. Some are sipping coffee, some are munching on protein bars or other snacks. There are smiles all around.
By 10:30, someone invariably breaks out a deck of cards to start a round of bridge. Music from a line dancing class in an adjacent room drifts through. Most in the canteen know one another, while newcomers are quickly welcomed into the fold. The camaraderie is immediately clear.
The canteen is adjacent to the heated therapy pool at North Central Health Care and many of the people who wander in are fresh from a session in the pool. Others just finished a workout in the nearby fitness center, or are gearing up for a game of ping pong or cribbage. Some are taking a break from projects in the wood shop.
The room that houses the canteen is the epicenter of the action, clearly the heart of the social lives of the seniors who gather there each day. It’s the only, albeit unofficial, public senior center in the Wausau area.
"This is more than just a place to have a cup of coffee," says Tom Listrom, leaning on a polished wooden cane. "These people have become family to each other."
Much to Listrom's dismay, the canteen and dozens of other programs for seniors are in danger, and could disappear as soon as Dec. 1.
That's when the Aging and Disability Resource Center relocates from the health care center on Lakeview Drive to a smaller office on West Stewart Avenue. The new location won’t have the space for recreational programs, let alone a pool, canteen and fitness center. And no one will remain to supervise the canteen or the many social events that take place within NCHC’s walls.
"We're all just devastated," Listrom says. "Without this place, we'll have nowhere else to go."
A critical lifeline at risk
Listrom is one of hundreds of seniors who received a letter, dated Aug. 1, informing them that the ADRC would relocate and would no longer operate the fitness room or other programs at the health care center. The letter sparked fear, anger and sadness over the potential loss of what many seniors see as a critical lifeline.
"We don't have a senior center in Wausau, like other communities have, so this is really it for us," says Ted Clintsman, a regular at the fitness center and the canteen. "We have pot lucks, Christmas parties, card games, you name it. We help each other. We listen to each other. We help each other get through the hard stuff. If this place goes, we won't have that anymore."
The main mission of the ADRC—a largely grant-funded agency that serves Marathon and three surrounding counties—is to be a gateway to information and assistance for aging residents, connecting them to vital services to help them stay healthy and independent, says ADRC Executive Director Linda Weitz. The agency is probably best known for providing Meals on Wheels, delivering hot, ready-to-eat food to more than 1,000 area seniors.
Its main mission means providing meal and nutrition programs and public benefits counseling. That, however, does not include facilitating the range of recreational programs that Listrom, Clintsman and many others find so beneficial.
So far, the ADRC staff has been "unofficially" supervising these programs at NCHC because of their close proximity to the recreational spaces, but they’re not contractually obligated to continue doing so, Weitz says.
"We've been providing oversight as a courtesy, but that will change when we move our offices," Weitz says. "The question is, will the county leave the space open? And who will run these programs?"
The ADRC was created in 2006 and since its inception has rented its office and rec space from NCHC—22,000 square feet, which much larger than the organization needs, says Weitz. The organization operates with a nine-person management team and network of about 400 volunteers.
The administrative offices will downsize to about 8,000 square feet after the December move, lowering operating costs significantly. Weitz says the move isn't just a cost savings measure; it’s also necessary to maintain certain federal grant requirements that limit the square footage used for offices. While the move unfortunately affects the recreational programs, Weitz says, it can't be avoided.
The challenge of how to best serve the community's senior citizens only continues to grow.
In Marathon County, more than 16% of the population is age 65 or older, a nearly 3% jump in just five years.
As 10,000 baby boomers across the U.S. turn age 65 each day, the demographics of America are changing. The nation's over-65 population is expected to double in the next decade, while the total population will grow by just 34%, according to U.S. Census data projections.
By 2020, for the first time in human history, the number of people age 65 and older will outnumber children younger than age 5, worldwide.
Senior centers increasingly are becoming the norm in cities across the globe. Yet Wausau is the only mid-sized city in a four-county radius that lacks a designated senior center, says Weitz. "That's really the problem," Weitz says.
There is a national movement afoot to improve the quality of life for older residents, according to the AARP. That means providing more recreational opportunities and 21st century wellness centers for seniors, says Kathryn Lawler, a national spokeswoman for the AARP.
But so far, Wausau seems to be behind the national curve.
A glimmer of hope
Michael Loy, interim CEO of North Central Health Care, says he and other leaders at the agency are doing their best to come up with a workable plan to keep senior services largely intact at their facility.
"We recognize that having these services and activities is good for the community," Loy says. "That said, providing those services isn't at all part of our organization's mission. But I am committed to finding a way to extend the programs and keep them going, at least through 2017, if at all possible."
Bob Henning has an idea for that. He’s one of several seniors who spends many hours each week in the wood shop, both tending to his own projects and mentoring others. Henning suggests simply keeping the existing space open for seniors and enlisting volunteers to supervise and facilitate the recreational programs he and so many others find invaluable.
"Why not just use this space as a satellite (to the ADRC)?" Henning wonders. "If this space ceases to exist, it will be devastating. These programs are important to all of us."
Loy says a workable plan could indeed include a network of volunteers to staff the canteen and help oversee programs. The issue for NCHC isn't just about cost, but about liability. Although most of the ADRC’s rec and social programs are participant driven, staff does provide oversight. Without supervision of those spaces when the agency moves, liability becomes an issue for NCHC.
Still, Loy says, "We're picking up the ball. We have no other plans for the space at this point."
But even if Loy can make that work come December, the future of NCHC is even more uncertain than the senior programs housed within it. The organization is going through something of a crisis of its own, as the Marathon County board contemplates a plan that would radically change the way NCHC operates.
The proposed change calls for the county to pull out of its existing contract with NCHC and contract for individual services, beginning in 2018. That will only work if the other two counties in the tri-county agreement—Lincoln and Langlade—agree to the same structure, something that seems increasingly unlikely. Without all three counties on board with the plan, NCHC will effectively cease to exist, says Marathon County Corporation Counsel Scott Corbett.
Along with it, the future of the senior programs housed within the facility is in equal jeopardy.
Loy is aware of at least one private group in the community actively working to create a senior center, though those plans are in the initial stages and only tentative. "Until there is a senior center here, we will work to meet that need," Loy says.
Staying as independent as possible
Recognized by the Older Americans Act as a community focal point, senior centers are some of the most widely used services among older adults. Nationwide, nearly 12,000 senior centers serve more than 1 million older adults each day, according to the National Council on Aging. Senior centers offer a variety of services, including educational and arts programs, social and recreational activities, transportation services, health and wellness, and intergenerational programs.
The Council says 75% of participants nationwide visit a senior center up to three times a week, spending an average three hours per visit. In Wausau, about 300 people use the senior programs housed at NCHC each week. Given the demographic changes, those numbers are only expected to rise—assuming the programs remain.
Certainly, a number of well-staffed retirement communities in the area provide a variety of social opportunities for their residents, says Clintsman, one of the regulars at the senior canteen. Those facilities typically have common areas for gatherings, a range of planned outings and other amenities, such as fitness centers, in-house pubs and movie theaters.
"That's great for people who can afford to live in those places," Clintsman says. "What about the rest of us, the ones who want to live in our homes?"
Clintsman has a point. In a 2015 poll from the National Council on Aging, 75% of seniors said they intend to live in their current home for the rest of their lives. And 47% said their communities could do a better job of caring for and preparing for an aging population.
The impact of senior centers goes well beyond the seniors themselves. Such centers serve the entire community, according to a 2009 California Commission on Aging study. These centers offer support for family caregivers, train professionals and students, provide information on aging and allow more seniors to age in place, rather than shifting to retirement homes.
Compared with their peers, senior center participants are healthier, with higher levels of social interaction and life satisfaction. Research by the NCA shows that those who participate in senior center programs can manage and delay chronic disease and report measurable improvements in their emotional and physical well-being.
Similarly, a 2008 Commonwealth of Pennsylvania-funded study found strong ties between senior centers and a reduced risk of depression and cognitive decline. Both studies concluded that successful aging is more likely when seniors are actively engaged.
"Senior centers are one of the most accessible, friendly and inexpensive places that offer programs and services that promote active engagement and enjoyment of life by older adults," the 2008 study reads.
To maintain their operations, most senior centers rely on at least three funding sources: some combination of federal, state and local government funding, special events, private grants, businesses, bequests, participant contributions, in-kind donations, and volunteers, according to the National Council on Aging.
A number of other central Wisconsin communities are working together in this regard.
The senior center in Stevens Point, for example, is run largely by volunteers through a combination of city and Portage County funding. Antigo and Marshfield have similar programs in place. But with a looming $1.5 million budget deficit in Wausau, any city funding to create a senior center looks increasingly unlikely.
The seniors who frequent the programs at NCHC say they’re frustrated and feel left behind. Several have contacted county board members to express their dismay. "Some of the people on the board didn't even seem to know that this place exists," says Larry Anklam, who swims, visits the canteen and plays ping pong regularly at the facility.
Tom Listrom is taking the fight a step further, circulating a petition specifically to help save the therapy pool, long the subject of debate by county officials.
"I'm figuring, if they close the canteen and shut down the fitness center, the pool could be next," Listrom says. "I don't know what I'd do without it."
Listrom's fears are not unfounded. The pool, central Wisconsin's only warm-water therapy facility, is nearly 40 years old and is in serious need of repair. A 2015 study showed an array of problems: The extreme humidity and high chlorine levels are causing significant rust and deterioration in the pool, while the floors are beginning to crumble.
In August 2015, after considering seven separate options, the county's health and human services committee recommended moving the pool to a different site on the NCHC campus, a move that would have cost up to $5.7 million. Supporters of the plan raised more than $600,000 to help fund the project, but the county board nixed the plan over cost concerns.
Michael Loy says he sees the value of the warm water pool and has even used it himself for physical therapy. But the reality is that the pool represents an enormous expense in a sea of competing capital needs.
Listrom says he hopes for at least 5,000 signatures to send a clear signal to local officials that the pool is important and necessary. The petition will be submitted to the Marathon County board in time for its Sept. 20 meeting.
The pool is just one piece of the puzzle, Listrom says. Perhaps most important is continuing to provide a community space in which to gather.
"It's so frustrating," Listrom says. "Out of the blue, getting this letter saying our lifeline is just going away, with no explanation. We feel like we're being tossed aside."
Linda Weitz says the ADRC didn't intend to disrupt senior programs by relocating. In the process, though, the move revealed a deeper need in the community that’s not being addressed.
"This facility, with this pool and all of these resources, is such a gem," Weitz says. "But now it’s time for someone to take the reins and keep this going."