The city’s more than 300 Older Adult Centers saw an average of 24,261 daily participants during the last fiscal year that ended in June, still shy of pre-pandemic numbers but up nearly 28 percent since 2021-2022.
After COVID-19 shuttered their doors for more than a year, New York City’s senior centers are on the rebound.
The city’s more than 300 Older Adult Centers saw an average of 24,261 participants a day during the last fiscal year that ended in June, up nearly 28 percent from 2021-2022, according to the latest Mayors Management Report. The sites collectively served more than 5 million meals in Fiscal Year 2023, 68 percent higher than the year before.
While the attendance numbers are still below what they were before the pandemic—when Centers saw an average of 29,726 people per day—providers say the upturn is indicative of many older New Yorkers' desire to return to more in-person activities, as well as of a deepening need for certain services, such as help with housing and meals.
"The older adult community is slowly coming back, for lack of a better term here, to resume their life," said Stacy Bliagos, the executive director of HANAC, a social services nonprofit which runs several senior centers in Queens.
One of their locations has seen a 35 percent spike in the number of people coming in for congregate meals, she said, while demand for other in-person activities—such as art classes and field trips to plays and museum—has increased, too.
"COVID taught us that we can just do some services hybrid, but there is that human touch that is needed that is really just invaluable," Bliagos said.
Senior centers—renamed "Older Adult Centers" under former Mayor Bill de Blasio—remained shuttered from COVID through much of 2021, with contracted providers pivoting to home-delivered meals and offering virtual classes and programs. Centers were allowed to reopen during the summer of 2021, with social distancing restrictions in place for several months after.
Last fall, when those capacity rules were lifted, the city's Department for the Aging (NYC Aging) launched "Join Us," a public service campaign urging older residents to join or re-connect with their local senior center, with ads translated into Russian, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.
While Centers are still offering virtual and hybrid programming, participation in those activities dropped sharply this fiscal year, from more than 61,000 attendees in 2021-2022 to 33,608 for the 12-month period that ended in June, city data shows.
"NYC Aging expects virtual participation may continue to decrease, however, it will remain an option," the agency wrote in the latest MMR.
Encore Community Services, which runs two Older Adult Centers in Manhattan, has seen demand for a more diverse offering of programs and activities since reopening, according to Executive Director Jeremy Kaplan.
"We are seeing a big response to the activities that we provide that allow people to explore their creativity," said Kaplan, recalling a script writing workshop where "the room was jam packed."
Encore has seen need emerge in other ways: food insecurity has continued to be a top need, according to Kaplan. "At the centers we have people kind of like hanging out and waiting, you know, to be the last ones out, to see if we have any extra food," he said.
The organization has also seen "a palpable spike in homeless older adults."
"Older adults who have housing needs, folks who might either not have stable housing or who may be uncertain about the stability of their housing," Kaplan said.
While providers hope the next city budget will reflect this increased demand for services, cuts loom: Mayor Eric Adams last month ordered city agencies to trim spending by 5 percent beginning in November, citing the costs of sheltering asylum seekers.
NYC Aging, which funds Older Adult Center providers, had a budget of just over $545 million last year—a $5 million increase from the year before, but still less than 0.5 percent of the city's budget overall.
A 2020 report from the Center for an Urban Future called for the city to more than double that amount, "to meet the growing needs of the largest population of older adults in the city’s history." The number of New Yorkers over 60 is expected to hit 1.86 million by 2040.
"NYC Aging is already underfunded," said Kaplan, pointing to low wages across the human services sector which make it harder for organizations like his to retain staff.
The mayor's belt-tightening measures, he added, would be "further cutting already strained social service organizations at a time when when that safety net is needed more than ever."
A NYC Aging spokesperson did not comment directly on the potential impact of budget cuts, pointing instead to the city's five-year Community Care Plan—launched with a $58 million investment in 2021—to expand services and resources for older residents, the largest such investment in decades.
Bliagos, of HANAC, said it's hard to say exactly how cuts from City Hall this year could impact the organization, which runs programs for families and youth as well as older New Yorkers.
"The mayor I think is in a tough spot, and we hope that we continue getting the funding that we need because we do serve multiple vulnerable populations," she said.
"I always say that the older adult community is the forgotten, vulnerable population," Bliagos added. "I think, as a society, we really need to be committed to helping older adults thrive in the communities that they helped build."