Serving up lunch, camaraderie and laughter with a double dose of dignity, the Golden Gate Senior Center benefits a diverse senior population in Collier — one that has been long neglected. Seniors in Golden Gate have reported high stress levels and low emotional health, according to the Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida Assessment which analyzedthe region’s readiness to improve the community’s well-being.
These residents would “benefit from the Blue Zones Project moai initiatives that bring people together to form new social connections and friendships around a common interest like walking, potlucks and volunteering, forming a support network that has helped countless individuals better deal with stress, avoid loneliness, and transition into a thriving state,” read the report.
That’s what’s happening at the center, which opened in November in the former Golden Gate Branch Library and operated by the nonprofit Collier Senior Resources.
Serving about 50 people daily with about 70 active members, the center is open to those age 60 and older. There is no membership fee for independent seniors; those requiring assistance may participate, if accompanied by a caregiver.
On a recent afternoon, a group of seniors enjoyed the company of their peers in an energized, comfortable environment. Program Director Tatiana Fortune was there to help, should the seniors need it.
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“My greatest joy is to know that our members are truly satisfied and happy, and that they are comfortable here. When they connect with other people, it makes them feel alive. We want them to feel free to be themselves and get the services they need,” Fortune said.
And, happy they are. Marina Mejia circulates through the room with a bulbous red clown’s nose, greeting her friends, making them smile and laugh. Twice a week, Mejia enjoys chair yoga, crocheting and arts and crafts. She also volunteers in the food pantry, forwarding her mission to bring joy to everyone in her path.
“The center has so many activities. I thank God every day that the center is within walking distance for me. I love to laugh, and I love to make others happy. I tell jokes or whatever it takes to make people smile, that’s what makes me happy,” Mejia said.
“Here, we are treated as human beings — not as numbers.”
Part-time volunteer coordinator Dana Bailey oversees a group of 12 to 15 volunteers who keep things flowing. One volunteer, Debbie Bonavita, a former schoolteacher, leads the arts and crafts class.
“Twenty years from now, I hope that I have a place like this to socialize and to have fun,” Bonavita said. “The members are always smiling and engaged. They are happy, and it’s noisy, and noisy is good; it means they are having a good time.”
The center offers resources and services designed to address social, physical, health and financial needs of our senior population, with assistance from The Leadership Coalition on Aging, a compendium of over 40 agencies. Caregiver support groups include those from the Alzheimer’s Support Network that offers bilingual information, emotional and practical support.
Educational workshop that address senior safety, hospice care and the importance of medical plans and ways to navigate through personal health care decisions and information are held regularly.
Activities, such as quilting, arts and crafts as well as monthly birthday parties, are plentiful too. A computer lab also is available to members. Afternoon movies, karaoke and bingo and dominoes encourage socialization and help members to mingle and make friends.
English classes are provided by The Literacy Council of the Gulf Coast (http://www.literacygulfcoast.org/welcome-to-our-new-website/) and AARP sponsors a driving course. The Doctor’s Choice Home Care provides regular blood pressure screenings and the Lion’s Club sponsors vision screenings at the center.
“Now, we also offer a nutrition program with a 25-person waiting list, and in March, 795 meals were served,” Harriet Lancaster, Collier Senior Resource Chair, said. “We would love to start a food fund to serve everyone.” A Meals of Hope food pantry also provides food for 125 families weekly, and 75 percent of those are seniors. Meals can be picked up 1 to 4 p.m. on Thursdays. Eligibility includes Collier County residency and a demonstrated financial need.
“Golden Gate has been neglected in terms of service and people tended to stay at home and were underserved,” Lancaster said, stressing that seniors now have the center.