Building an Age-Friendly Rhode Island
Hannah Slachek, at left, one of more than a dozen regular participants
in the weekly watercolor class at the center.
Hannah Slachek, at left, one of more than a dozen regular participants in the weekly watercolor class at the center.

A Visit to Pawtucket

By Susan E. Bouchard
(Photographs by Susan E. Bouchard and Lynda Read)

“I felt like the outside didn’t match the inside. I still felt young, but suddenly other people didn’t always see me that way.” Hannah Slachek, 71, of Pawtucket, R.I., recalls thinking she was too young for the “senior” center, but she decided to give it a try. “I joined a painting class and fell in love with the people I met there. They weren’t ‘old ladies’ they were wonderful, interesting and talented and they had already done so many interesting things in their lives.

Nearly 20 years earlier, Slachek and her husband Michael, moved to Florida for work. They were planning to eventually enjoy their retirement years there as well. But when her husband’s health failed and he passed away she had to re-think her life. She said, “I felt like there was a puzzle piece missing. Like I had to reinvent myself.” She longed to be closer to family, so she moved back to Rhode Island choosing to call Pawtucket home because it was close to her daughter, her extended family and lots of other services.

Adrian and Ursula Santiago get a little cardio in the Monday morning
Strength and Toning class at the center.
Adrian and Ursula Santiago get a little cardio in the Monday morning Strength and Toning class at the center.

Visitors to Pawtucket may be drawn to the city to explore Slater Park along the banks of the Blackstone River or to take in a baseball game at McCoy stadium. But as the older residents know, there is more to their diverse city than tourist attractions. With more than 71,000 residents, it is the fourth largest city in the state. And it is working to became one of its more age-friendly communities.

And that is in no small part due to the Leon A. Mathieu Senior Center. A three-story historic building tucked into the downtown business district, it is a hub of activity.

Pet therapy dog Wendy eagerly awaits visitors.
Pet therapy dog Wendy eagerly awaits visitors.

On a recent Monday morning, the large front room of the center was filled with sunlight and more than 25 people were moving through a series of exercises led by dance-fitness instructor Toba Weintraub. Called Strength and Toning, this class is set to music and everyone seemed to be getting a workout - some quietly going through the steps while others danced along at a more frenetic pace.

After the exercise class wraps up, the room is quickly transformed as tables of four fill with men and women playing in a Hi-Lo Jack tournament. Nearby, a woman pauses to add a few pieces to a community jigsaw puzzle before heading to her morning knitting class a few rooms away in the Garden Room. And who wouldn’t want to go to the Garden Room? It is flooded with so much light that even in the winter brightly-colored geraniums and hibiscus manage to stay warm and find enough light to continue to bloom. Others stopped by for coffee and donuts and to chat with friends. Continuing down the hall, in another small room, a few people were sitting together watching television. There were lots of people participating in organized activities, but lots of others, were just visiting. Moments later, the arrival of Wendy and Tinkerbell, four-legged visitors are met with much excitement. These tiny, certified pet-therapy dogs visit the center regularly giving kisses and love to all who stop by to greet them.

Cyber-Seniors volunteer Sally Dean, at right, shares a laugh with
Brenda Beauregard while learning to post images to Facebook on her laptop.
Cyber-Seniors volunteer Sally Dean, at right, shares a laugh with Brenda Beauregard while learning to post images to Facebook on her laptop.

Down the hall, another small room with glass windows and a door that keeps out the noise, is home to a program called Cyber Seniors. This intergenerational program pairs a college student with an older adult who is looking for help with technology. Desktop, laptop, smart phone or tablet, this one-on-one program can help with getting on Facebook, answering email or any other tech-savvy questions older adults might have. These intergenerational moments bridge more than just the technology gap, they create better understanding between people of all ages. In addition, the center recently installed new desktop computers and classes - in both English and Spanish – are getting underway.

Knitting and chatting are friends, left to right, Maria Gold, Pamela
Baker and Nazareth Cabral.
Knitting and chatting are friends, left to right, Maria Gold, Pamela Baker and Nazareth Cabral.

With Senior Center Director Mary Lou Moran at the helm, it is home to so many programs and activities it is like a little city in and of itself. There is a seamstress on-site offering sewing and alterations on Tuesdays, and a hairdressing service on Wednesdays. Lunch is available every day and breakfast is served twice a week. There is a book club, scrapbooking class, needlepoint and knitting. Blood pressure screenings, nutrition classes and diabetes education. Tax assistance and Veterans’ Benefits counseling. These are just a few of the dozens of things happening in any given month.

Alice Broadbent, center, demonstrates masking, an
advanced technique in watercolor painting.
Alice Broadbent, center, demonstrates masking, an advanced technique in watercolor painting.
Judy Hamin, dips her brush in paint.
Judy Hamin, dips her brush in paint.

“And new things are added all the time,” Moran said. “We have been expanding our wellness offerings, including Mindfulness classes, Aromatherapy, Therapeutic Message, Tai Chi and Yoga.” There are so many things to choose from, you might want to spend the day.

After lunch, life-long Pawtucket resident Alice Broadbent leads more than a dozen people in a watercolor painting class. A graphic artist by trade, she has been teaching painting classes in her native Pawtucket and neighboring communities for nearly 17 years. The group gathers around Broadbent as she demonstrates masking, an advanced technique in watercolor painting. One of the artists listening intently to the instructions is Slachek. It was this painting class that first drew her to the Mathieu Senior Center and just one of the things that keeps her coming back. Making new friends and exploring her creative side at the center has made her return to Rhode Island more enjoyable.


Gary Girard leads a morning Tai Chi class.
Gary Girard leads a morning Tai Chi class.

A Visit to Jamestown

By Susan E. Bouchard
(Photographs by Susan E. Bouchard and Lynda Read)

Sometimes people use the phrase "being on an island" as a metaphor for isolationism, being alone and cut off from the rest of the world. But on the small island of Jamestown, R.I., this couldn't be further from the truth. Quickly becoming one of the age-friendliest towns in the state, Jamestown has come to symbolize a paradise of sorts for its older citizens. In a state that holds the distinction of having the largest percentage of adults 85 and older in the nation, one in four Jamestown residents are currently 60 and older. This is among the highest percentages of older adults of Rhode Island towns. Many of Jamestown's nearly 5,500 residents view the natural barrier the waters of Narragansett Bay presents as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. These very defined borders make it easier for its senior center, headed by Ellen Conway-Vietri, to reach out and draw people into its many activities.

As the senior services coordinator, Conway-Vietri brings a wealth of knowledge to the center with a professional background in health, wellness and communication. Her boundless energy helps make ideas reality. Having fun, staying healthy and enjoying life's pleasures are some of the things she keeps in mind when planning new classes to offer. Having built partnerships with local businesses, there are now dozens of activities, programs, trips and educational forums for adults age 50 plus.

Gary and Anita Girard share a laugh during the warm-up circle at the start of the morning Tai Chi class.
Gary and Anita Girard share a laugh during the warm-up circle at the start of the morning Tai Chi class.

One of the longest-running programs at the center is Tai Chi, facilitated by Jamestown resident Gary Girard; quick to point out that he is not the instructor, just a longtime participant who facilitates the group. The class begins warming up by walking in a large circle around the room. Each new arrival joins the circle chatting and greeting each other as light streams into the windows surrounding the room.

After a few minutes, Girard leads the group through a rhythmic set of gentle movements. Based on an ancient form of martial arts Tai Chi is often described as meditation in motion because each posture flows into the next keeping the body in constant movement. Tai Chai for Arthritis is specifically designed by Arthritis specialists to relieve pain, help prevent falls and improve overall health and wellness. It is perfect for anyone who wants to add some movement and exercise into their lives. Girard quietly reminds the group to work at their own pace, with a kind, reassuring voice that is especially familiar to one of the participants, Anita, since she has been married to Gary for nearly 60 years. The couple started coming to Tai Chi years ago when it was one of the only programs other than the mid-day meal available at the center. Now there are dozens of activities, to choose from.

Rusty Pen's Writing Workshop Anna Pomfret participates.
Rusty Pen's Writing Workshop Anna Pomfret participates.
Rusty Pen's Writing Workshop group leader Gayen Thompson, writes in a
timed sequence.
Rusty Pen's Writing Workshop group leader Gayen Thompson, writes in a timed sequence.

Another popular program at the center is the Rusty Pens Writing Workshop, led by Gayen Thompson, who encourages participants to put pen to paper with word prompts. Writing in timed sequences, they write quickly and then share their stories with each other. No formal writing experience is required, just the desire to be creative, have fun and meet new people. This is just what a typical Monday is like at the center. After a cost-free morning of exercise for the body Tai Chai and the mind Rusty Pens, it is time to head downstairs for lunch. A three-course meal is served weekdays in the senior center's West Street Cafe. There is a suggested donation of $3 and reservations are required since meals are created by an off-site caterer. A quick glance at this week's menu includes chicken pot pie, fish and chips, roasted pork loin with applesauce and lighter choices such as sandwiches and salads are always an option. Each meal begins with soup and ends with dessert and is a chance to get to know people. Sitting at round tables seems to foster community as the room was filled with quiet laughter.

A new age-friendly project is getting underway on Jamestown. An 8-week pilot program starting in April, on Thursdays, if you need a ride, the center's shuttle will come and pick you up. This is one of the perks of living on a small island, with very defined borders they can try new things like offering door-to-door service. According to Conway-Vietri, one of the things that many older adults fear most about growing older is losing their independence by having to give up their car keys. With this new program, the center is trying to find ways to help keep older adults involved in their community. So, give the center a call and reserve a spot in the van and at the lunch table.

While there are many opportunities for fun and fitness on the island, life doesn’t always happen exactly the way you imagine it will. Elizabeth Richter and her husband Donald moved to Jamestown because they felt it was the perfect place to retire. An island with sweeping views and the quiet lifestyle they were looking for, in a state strategically located in between where two, of their three children lived - one in Massachusetts and the other in New York. Donald was a pastor in the United Church of Christ and for most of the five decades they were married they lived in housing provided by the church. Since they were retiring, this was the first time the couple was choosing everything for themselves. They quickly became part of the community. In 2014, they bought a house but soon after they learned Donald was sick. Sadly, the story of their lives was about to change. Within months her husband passed away, she was not only heartbroken but she was unsure of what to do next.

She knew she couldn't be the only person facing these challenges, so she did what came naturally to her, she set off to figure it out. With bright blue eyes and an engaging personality, she has a way of making you feel like you have known her your whole life in just a few minutes. One of the first people she sought out was Conway-Vietri and they became fast friends. She helped Richter and a group of other residents create the Elder Umbrella Series. They asked area experts to address the topics they were concerned about such as healthcare and housing. They even asked the police and fire departments to offer tips and suggestions on how to safely remain in their homes as they grow older. What began as an inter-denominational, faith-based group, has expanded and continues today. These Educational Forums are now offered through the senior center regularly, addressing serious issues such as health insurance counseling, caregiver support and elder law.

One important role the center is playing is well, just that, playing with everyone - teens, families and seniors - through intergenerational programs. Many of the town's programs are open to all adults and some are held in partnership with the library, youth and teen center and are open to all participants.

The most popular annual intergenerational event is the summer picnic held at the Fort Getty pavilion. It is truly an island-wide effort, last year drawing more than 175 people. Open to all ages, local teens serve the meal which begins with clam chowder, includes lobster rolls, fresh tomatoes and basil from the Island's community garden and ends with the classic Rhode Island staple coffee ice cream by the water in the summer sun.

Sounds like it's great fun for all ages, which is by definition what it means to be age-friendly.