Senior centres close | Local News | #elderly | #seniors | #execrise
The once-thriving Senior Activity Centre initiative run by the Ministry of Social Development is on the verge of collapse, burdened by delayed payments and shuttered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a result, workers who laboured at these facilities for years say they are desperate for aid.
They were assistants, maintenance workers, clerks, cooks and teachers to hundreds of elderly men and women who frequented the centres at their peak. Now their hopes of surviving have plummeted with many struggling to ration food, pay off debts and find employment.
To one administrative assistant employed at the Rural Women Development Committee Senior Centre in Rio Claro, years without payment have culminated in a threat of homelessness.
A two-week notice handed out by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), on the evening of March 8, threatened to evict the 45-year-old single mother and her son from the home they had shared for many years.
Without accounting for more than $13,000 in arrears, the letter warned, legal action would be pursued against the family.
One month later, still unable to produce this payment, she told the Express that she has asked for temporary leniency from the HDC. With nowhere else to stay she fears that she may soon be forced to brave the streets.
“I am frustrated and at the last point because I might lose my home and I have nowhere else to go. It is just me and my son and I have no other form of income. It is over $30,000 I am owed… I am owing WASA (Water and Sewerage Authority). Nobody is highlighting it. It is hurtful because I put in blood and sweat for years and there is nothing coming from it. I have no one to turn to in this, so I have no choice,” she told the Express.
She is one of at least six employees stationed at the centre who have been left in limbo since 2017, when workers were told that subventions issued by the Ministry of Social Development had stopped coming.
She has since been threatened with disconnection from electricity and water suppliers.
In tears while speaking with the Express two weeks ago, she asked why those who had sacrificed time and effort to treat disenfranchised elders in the community were being ignored.
“Due to me about to lose my home, I started begging and calling them. Every time you call, they say they are meeting with the director. This was prior to Ms (Donna) Cox being the minister, Ms (Camille) Robinson-Regis was there. We are all afraid to bring it to the public because they think the Government will shut us down. Up to this morning I sent letters to the Office of the Prime Minister, to the ministry and to other persons and no one is taking it on,” she said.
The centre in Rio Claro is one of 11 opened in 2007 by the Ministry of Social Development with the intention of “encouraging an active and healthy lifestyle among the growing population of citizens 55 years and over, thereby contributing to their continued involvement in national development,” according to the ministry.
In the early years of operation, workers say the centres flourished, providing a safe space for learning and recreation among the elderly.
In Rio Claro, the centre afforded at least 42 registered members a number of classes, field trips, counselling and aid from the staff.
In 2020, only five of these remained open and were shut in March last year with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last week, the Express spoke to the centre’s director who asked to remain nameless.
According to the director, payments were made to each centre in quarterly instalments that varied by facility.
While payments were often delayed, she said, large gaps in payment became an issue during the 2017-2020 period.
Each subvention, she said, went towards a $6,000 monthly rent, the remainder of which was divided among staff salaries for approximately six employees, NIS contributions, and other maintenance costs.
When payments were halted in 2017, she said, several attempts were made to get a response from the ministry, to no avail. She said staff often relied on fund-raisers and small sales to stay afloat.
“Every time we felt like we couldn’t keep going without a payment, the seniors would come together and do something. They would say ‘You are sending us home to watch the walls?’ So they would throw together to try to contribute or they would hold sales and things like that. When ends were not meeting, that is what paid the bills and the workers,” she said.
She added that the situation has not only muddled the lives of staff but taken a toll on the centre’s members.
While the staff first attempted to continue the services virtually, she said, many felt abandoned and neglected by workers who had formed close relationships with members.
“It really is heartbreaking because not only is the staff greatly affected but what we were doing with the seniors is something very necessary. We had at least 40 registered members and these are vulnerable people who depended on us to fill spaces in their lives. We spent time and built relationships with these people.
“Some of them are at home without anything to do and coming to the centre gave them a sense of purpose. Some of them are in very complicated circumstances with their family. We would do activities with them, provide services, go on field trips and even sometimes help them go to the clinic. Now what hurts is sometimes we get phone calls from these people asking if we abandoned them,” she said.
The Express was told of two other centres that were similarly affected by a lack of payment.
A staff member who did not want to be identified, at the Maloney Senior Activity Centre, confirmed this in a telephone interview last week.
“We haven’t received anything at all for last year, it went prior to that and then they gave us a little thing to keep us quiet. Then we sent in all the documents that they asked us for. And since then, nothing at all. Debts are piling and nothing is coming. There is no movement, the whole thing is, I think, the relevant authorities don’t see the needs of the seniors. Other countries think about their seniors and the young and disabled people. It is disheartening to watch,” said the employee.
Contacted for a response last week, the ministry told the Express that the closure of these facilities, due to the Government’s stay-at-home orders, created a delay in payments for the first quarter of 2020.
“The Senior Activity Centres (SACs) suspended in-person operations by the end of March 2020, due to the Government’s ‘stay home order’ and the fact that the clients of these SACs fall into the category of persons most vulnerable to the disease,” said the Ministry.
“The aforementioned closure of services resulted in an interruption of payment of subventions to the five SACs, in receipt of funding from the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services (MSDFS), for the period January 2020 to December 2020.”
The ministry sent the following breakdown for payments owed to five centres for the first quarter of 2020.
Amount to be paid for Jan-Mar 2020:
1. Barataria SAC — $73,000
2. Maloney Women’s Group Senior Centre — $54,000
3. Margaret Crandahl Senior Activity Centre — $60,500
4. St Stephen’s Senior Activity Centre — $49,000
5. Rural Women Development Committee Senior Centre — $66,045
Total — $302,545
This delay, it said, was due to the centre’s limited access to their records.
“A preliminary investigation conducted in September 2020 revealed that while some SACs were able to perform online duties, others were unable to and/or were unable to access their records as a result of the closure of their offices (Furthermore, the last quarterly reports received from the SACs were for Quarter 1 of Fiscal Year 2020 (October-December 2019). Thus, payment could not be processed for the SACs at the end of fiscal 2020 given the limited information obtained on their activities.”
Asked about a lack of payment to employees, the ministry said this was the responsibility of the organisations and not the ministry. Payments were made up to 2019.
“The staff at the centres and the payment of their wages/salaries are the responsibility of the organisations operating the centres and not the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services. The Senior Activity Centres were paid their subvention up to December 2019 by the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services,” it said.
The Express then asked the ministry to clarify its position on subventions paid to the Rio Claro centre between 2017 and the present day.
The Express asked if the pandemic’s duration would affect further payments of the subventions.
These questions were referred to the ministry’s permanent secretary but no response was received.
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