BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Swing music, friendly chatter and the smoky smell of hot dogs on the grill filled the Niskayuna Community Center’s pavilion July 14 for Schenectady County’s second annual summer picnic for seniors.
There were dancing, swimming, bocce ball and horseshoes after lunch, all lined up to keep the socializing going in spite of thunderclouds threatening on the horizon.
But it was more than a summer gathering for people with AARP cards in their wallets.
“We’re offering information on a lot of services,” said Laurie Bacheldor, manager of the senior long-term care office for the county.
Health insurance company Humana sponsored the picnic, so it had a booth; Catholic Charities and Schenectady County also passed out fliers and chatted up picnickers about the different resources they can reach out to when they need help — or just want to make some new friends. Bacheldor listed arts programs, outings and social events she said more seniors would likely show for, if only they were aware of the activities.
“My goal is to rotate this picnic through all the towns in the county,” she said.
She noted that the broad group called “seniors” actually should be divided into multiple categories of their own: the baby boomers, for example, tend to be tech-savvy and Internet-connected, expecting to find information online rather than in a newspaper or over the phone. Older seniors might prefer to read about events on paper or dial up a friendly voice.
“The challenge is that everything for senior services is going online,” Bacheldor said. “The technology is a big one. It’s balancing both populations.”
It can be tough to distribute the same messages consistently to such different information consumers, but the challenges don’t stop there. She also needs to reach caretakers: gen-x, gen-y, even millennials whose parents are aging and who may need information on Medicare or meal services or retirement communities. Bacheldor said her goal for the future is to make sure these groups know they’re invited to the senior picnic, and plenty of other county activities, too.
“You can bring your grandchildren to the arts class, learn to dance with grandpa,” she said.
Walter Fosdick, program director for Catholic Charities, was facing down a similar challenge at his booth in the picnic pavilion.
“We like to get out what our services are,” he said while taking a break from handing out water bottles, sandwich containers, mints and other goodies with Catholic Charities contact information printed on it.
He, too, noted that there are different challenges to face with two separate generations of seniors. Baby boomers — the younger, more tech-savvy ones — are often reluctant to ask for help when they need it. Fosdick wishes they would call his colleagues.
“Don’t muddle through it,” he said. “We’re here to help.”
He said it’s especially important to get insurance questions answered by counselors, a service that Catholic Charities provides for free. Mistakes on Medicare forms, for example, can be costly in the long run.
Complex paperwork aside, Fosdick said Catholic Charities’ other services also go underutilized. There’s transportation for seniors to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store, and meal delivery services. One story in particular stuck with him: a woman who had lost the ability to drive safely had felt her independence was lost, but a simple weekly trip to the grocery store with one of the charity’s drivers boosted her spirits tremendously.
“I like to know that the people who have made this country the way it is now, I can help them at the other end of their lives,” he said.
While the picnic was attended mainly by seniors, young people from around the county were on hand to set up and cook hot dogs and burgers. While they worked, they also enjoyed getting to know the seniors at the event.
Ed Kosiur, director of Schenectady County’s youth bureau, said the high school-aged volunteers at the picnic asked him why the county didn’t have a similar luncheon every month, instead of just once a year.
“It’s a way to give back. It’s wonderful for them,” he said.
Mary Pritchard, a Schenectady senior, said she attended the picnic to socialize, but also to ensure that the same sorts of things happen more often, and that senior services are expanded in the county.
“We chose Schenectady,” she said of herself and her husband, Alun Pritchard. “He’s a retired teacher; I’m a retired teacher. My daughter was born at Ellis.”
Her children and grandchildren live in Niskayuna.
Pritchard said her love for the county has inspired her to become active in making it an increasingly supportive place for aging people to live. She’s on the New York State Senior Action Council, still collaborates with New York State United Teachers, and sits on the advisory council for her senior center.
“I love what the senior centers are doing,” she said. “I love Schenectady.”
But she still thinks things could be better.
“We need to work more on it,” she said. “In Australia, Canada — it’s unreal. We are not anywhere close to what other countries do for their seniors.”
But for the afternoon, Pritchard was content to enjoy the things that were going right: the DJ, the food, and tables full of her friends.