ONC, Bethel’s Tribe, recently announced they are closing the Senior Center at the end of the month and moving to a temporary location.
As lunchtime nears, elders gather at the Chief Eddie Hoffman Senior Center in downtown Bethel. Seniors mill around the common area talking, smiling, resting, getting help with paperwork, and playing card games, as they’ve done since the center opened in the mid-80’s.
Just before noon, an elder offers a prayer before lunch.
As the seniors line up for their meal, elder Luther Oscar says he loves the time he gets to socialize with his friends.
“I started coming to the senior center to enjoy the fellowship, also to enjoy a meal with other elders over at the dining hall,” says Oscar.
The meal is bittersweet, as it’s one of the last the seniors will have together in the building. Bethel’s Tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council, manages the senior center program. This summer they announced that they could no longer afford to stay there.
The senior center serves lunch for elders, delivers food to homebound seniors, and drives a bus to bring them to places like the post office and the grocery store.
Elder, Lucy Jacobs has been a regular at the center for many years. She says her worst fear about the center closing is loneliness.
“I’m afraid I’ll be lonely again, I don’t want the senior center closed. Some of us are always lonely in our homes while our families are gone. When all of us are here together, we are happy, we even get to enjoy games,” says Jacobs.
The center has been housed in a city building off Atsaq Street through a memorandum of understanding that allowed ONC to use the city building free of charge, if they paid the bills. But ONC officials say the cost to run the program totaled over $600,000 last year and that’s just too much
Zach Brink is the Executive Director of ONC.
“The expenses needed to take care of the building are getting too high now that it’s getting too old. We are closing the Eddie Hoffman Senior Center on September 30th, but along the way we are looking at options for a new site,” says Brink.
Brink says they plan to use part of the Lulu Herron Congregate Home, an apartment building for seniors, as a makeshift senior center until a more permanent location can be found.
It is unclear what the city will do with the old site, other than close it off for the winter. Elder Catherine Peters says it’s important for seniors to have a place to socialize and she hopes they’ll find a new home soon.
“We can laugh with them, talk with them, cry with them if we have to. And I hope the younger generation think about, they’re going to get old too and they’ll need a place to stay, comfortable. Everything takes time, everything takes money, don’t wait too long. Get it started,” says Peters.
Brink was uncertain on what level of services ONC can provide seniors in the temporary location.