NEW YORK 2021

Forever Young: Seniors Dance in the Bronx

Senior day care centers are a valuable resource threatened by lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic

by

Like most popular girls, Linda Bailey, 57, sits at the lunch table in the back of the room. But unlike last year, she’s now surrounded by three empty chairs. Katrina died of cancer, and the two other Sophisticated Ladies, as their clique is called, are still too nervous to leave the house.

Located in the South Bronx, Bruckner Forever Young Social Adult Day Care Center serves chronically ill and mentally or physically disabled low-income Medicaid patients. It’s one of 5,000 private centers nationally that play a crucial role in clients’ lives, reminding them of doctors’ appointments, encouraging physical activity, and sending home COVID safety kits. After devastating pandemic losses, hundreds of centers are facing bankruptcy, leaving up to 39,000 Americans—many of whom hover just above the poverty line—behind.

“Linda does not do broccoli,” she says, pushing aside her styrofoam-boxed lunch. Among her concerns is a lack of salt and pepper, which the center doesn’t provide due to Medicaid regulations. Behind her chair, or throne, hang two bedazzled plastic L’s—for Lady Linda. She joined Forever Young six years ago, after neighbors raved about the adult center’s meals, though they didn’t mention the salt and pepper ban. (Well before she joined the center, Bailey was mugged and beaten outside the Gun Hill Houses, where she lives, sustaining 10 fractures to the right side of her face. Her son stumbled through the snow with kitchen knives trying to find the culprit.)

Clients sit at scattered tables around the room—some alone, others in groups with names like Dreamers of Bruckner tacked on the wall behind them. By noon, Afrobeats and 90s hip-hop blast from overhead speakers, drowning out Bingo calls for “G44.” People peel themselves off leather recliners to form a circle, cheering each other on despite varying levels of mobility. Even the artificial hips don’t miss a beat.

According to the National Institute on Aging, social engagement among older adults is key in warding off Alzheimer’s, lowering levels of depression, and even delaying mortality—making the consequences of closing adult day care centers dire. In the Bronx, the stakes are even higher. The borough’s senior poverty rate is 28%—three times the national average. Clients can’t afford private nursing homes, and subsidized housing for low-income seniors has multiple-year waiting lists.

“One thing I like here?” says Lashawn Carter, 47. “We have our freedom.” Carter joined the center after her 22-month-old granddaughter was beaten to death in her apartment ​​by her daughter’s boyfriend. After a psychiatrist’s recommendation, she started spending five days a week singing for Bible class, selecting “nerd” costumes for Friday dance parties, and sitting beside her life partner, Lo, who she met at the center. Without Bruckner, reduced-mobility clients like Carter, who uses a wheelchair, would be confined to single rooms in walk-up apartments. “I’m telling you, some people come here because they don’t want to stare at four walls,” says Gene Benfeld, the center’s program director.

When the center was forced to shut down for 15 months last year, many did just that.

On March 17, 2020, Carter and Bailey were designing costumes for a St. Patrick’s Day party. That evening, the state deemed adult day care centers nonessential services, and the duo—along with Bruckner’s 350 other clients—were sent home.

“Even before COVID, we were already noticing the squeeze of gentrification on the social lives of older adults who were living in these communities,” Shellae Versey, an assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University, tells the Voice in a phone interview, referring to members of racial minority groups being priced out of their neighborhoods. Black and Latino seniors are more likely to live in places where people report feelings of not belonging in the area or knowing who could help in times of trouble, according to the Journal of the American Society on Aging.

Throughout the pandemic, members kept in touch using a Facebook group, swapping GIFs and looking after one another: Good evening fam … Ray Hall is out of ICU and in a regular room. They shared prayers and sadness when members, including Ray, passed away. With the city’s highest rates of hospitalizations and deaths, the Bronx was hit tragically hard by COVID. It wasn’t until some members finally reunited one Saturday last March for barbecue that they smiled again, Bailey says.

For now, Bruckner has returned to its typical itinerary: 9:00 a.m. morning prayer, 10:00 a.m. Bingo, 10:30 a.m. Zumba, and, after lunch, a 30-minute line dance. Members have the option of joining daily excursions: a visit to Empire City Casino with a $10 voucher, lunch at a Latino-Chinese restaurant, and—the most coveted outing of all—a trip to Walmart. Bailey scans the room, pointing out Bruckner diehards: Angie the hype girl, Trisha “who’s having her hot flashes right now,” and Teresa the in-house stylist, who gives daily blowouts and manicures.

“You have this sense of a little pueblo, a little village,” says Caroline Gelman, director of the MSW program at Hunter College, in a phone interview. “It’s important that they’re with peers who understand them, who they can reminisce with, who know the music they grew up with.”

At “the Spanish table,” six seniors huddle over colorful dominoes for hours on end. Compared to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, adult day care centers are the most ethnically diverse long-term care service—and a respite from the daily burdens of a doctor’s office.

“The intersection of Black, brown, and old in the healthcare system in particular is very dangerous,” Stacey Gordon, program director of Next Phase, Adult Caregiving and Retirement at New York University, tells the Voice. Ageism alone is responsible for grave outcomes such as higher levels of dementia and cardiovascular issues, Gordon adds. For Black and Latino seniors, layering on racism can result in undertreatment of health issues or confusing polypharmacy, the simultaneous use of multiple drugs. “If these places close, what’s going to happen to those people?” asks Donna Hale, executive director of the National Adult Day Services Association, in a phone interview.

Bailey leaves Bruckner’s flyers in all of her doctors’ offices in hopes of recruiting more clients, scribbling her name and number on the back of each one. She looks up from her table’s handmade Halloween centerpiece and says, “Sometimes you need to make your own fun.”

Even if it means losing a little money, Bruckner will stay open on Thanksgiving. Though most clients won’t come in, Benfeld is hosting a cookout for the 10 to 15 who rely solely on the center for food and companionship. “I spend more time with these guys than my own family,” he says. Carter will spend the holidays at home with a smaller group than she’s used to. Her cousin died, as did her brother-in-law, “not to COVID, but a straight bullet.”

Up in the Gun Hill Houses, Bailey is keeping Thanksgiving simple: no turkey, just chicken parts. She used to prepare an elaborate meal for extended family, but since downsizing to a one-bedroom with her 12-year-old chihuahua, Chico, she’s taking it easy. “Listen, no bra and I’m good,” she declares.  ❖

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