Up Island Council on Aging provides varied activities


Martha’s Vineyard’s four Council on Aging senior centers offer elderly Islanders, and the not-so-elderly, a rich variety of activities. On any given day there may be yoga, Tai Chi or Pilates classes, and a bridge or mah jong game may be heating up. One of the travel clubs may be heading off on a day-trip to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform, visit the Museum of Fine Arts there, or enjoy a Cape Cod shopping excursion. Elsewhere there are play- and poetry-reading clubs meeting, craft classes, volunteer programs, discussion groups, and nutritious lunch programs.

This is the third in a series of articles that describe the varied activities and distinct characteristics of the Island’s four senior centers, which are located in West Tisbury (also serving Chilmark and Aquinnah), Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury, and the regional services of the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living, which among other services runs the Supportive Day Program.

The Up-Island Council on Aging (UICOA) dates back to 1978 when its office was on the second floor of the old West Tisbury town hall building. For activities and programs the seniors and staff gathered in the church next door. With the donation of Howes House and the restoration of the old farm house, a real senior and community center was created across the road.

Today if you are a senior (defined as 55-plus) and want to learn to operate a computer, Howes House is the place to go. Additionally, there is strength training, Pilates, yoga, and watercoloring classes. And there is a senior dining room program on Thursdays at 12:30 pm for a $2 donation (reservations are suggested). The center is open each week day from 8:30 am-4 pm.

Joyce Bowker, a former social worker with the state department of public welfare, has been director of the Center for 25 years. Ms. Bowker, Kathleen Brady, assistant director, and outreach worker Ellen Reynolds are the three employees. There are four part-time people (the janitor, office assistant, secretary, and dining room manager ).

Ms. Bowker is the Island’s only center director certified under the state’s SHINE (Serving Health Information Needs of Seniors) program to aid clients needing objective information and counseling on health insurance options free of charge.

“I tell people these are your tax dollars at work,” she said.

Funds & Finances

Funding for the UICOA is derived from three main sources: the three towns served, the state Executive Office of Elder Affairs, and the nonprofit Friends of the UICOA.

The total FY2011 Center budget is $275,588: West Tisbury’s share is $146,089, Chilmark’s $95,580 and Aquinnah’s $33,917. The operational expenses are shared equally by the three towns. The staff salaries of the employees are apportioned out by the percentage of elderly in each up-Island town: West Tisbury 55%, Chilmark 34%, and Aquinnah 11%.

The Executive Office of Elder Affairs FY2010 funding totals $10,500 through monies given to each of the three up-Island towns.

“Our Friends have donated several hundred thousand since 1987, and they pay for most of the interior maintenance of the building, computers, painting, rugs, and all the grounds.

“I cannot say enough about the Friends; they are fabulous. And the three towns are very supportive. They work cooperatively. I think they care very much what happens to their people, because we all hope to keep getting older,” she said.

Through a special fund created in 2008 by the Friends, Ms. Bowker and Ellen Reynolds are able to anonymously help out clients needing fuel assistance or food.

“We are able to give whatever Ellen and I think is appropriate. So if someone had Vineyard Propane, a check goes to Vineyard Propane for say $500. It is done in a very anonymous and very respectful way,” she said.

Ms. Bowker said that she is seeing a definite increase in the number of seniors needing fuel assistance and food stamps.

“Definitely the dollar does not go as far and there is no Social Security Cost of Living increase — this will be the second year in a row. I know a lot of people, not Island people, but people who do not live here, think we are all wealthy. Many of our people live on social security and you have to be pretty creative to pay your bills,” she said

In FY2009, 33 volunteers donated more than 400 hours estimated to be worth a fair market value of $9,500.


Ms. Bowker conservatively estimates that the Center serves 300 people a month.

“A lot of our people who live here year-round are busy with family and friends in the summer so we’ll get the summer people who are doing everything with us and then we get the Island people back in September. So the numbers pretty much stay constant, but they are increasing every year,” she said.

Center clients average about 74 years of age. Yet, due to her longevity, Ms. Bowker says, “I have been here long enough that I do, in some cases, know four generations in a family. ”

The services being provided are constantly changing. “People are pretty proactive as far as their health goes. The Pilates, the walking group, all of the wellness programs. We did not have those programs when I began. It was more crafts, knitting. But as tastes and interests and needs evolve we evolve with it,” Ms. Bowker said.

The Center maintains a Reassurance Program. Currently there are about 10 people on the list who get a telephone call from a staff member on a regular basis.

“Some people say I will call you, and if I don’t call you by 10 am on a certain day then…Okay, we’ll go out and check if we don’t hear from them. Not to alarm the police, we do things very softly. Some people only want to be called once or twice a week, whatever they want,” she said.

Socialization is a huge part of what happens at the Senior Center. “People come from all over, three or four towns of people are coming today for the watercolor class. New friendships have evolved and that would not happen if they did not have an interest in common,” she said.

On Friday afternoons from 1-3 pm board member and volunteer Nancy Cabot leads a watercolor class that has been gathering for more than a decade. The group may be as many as a dozen in the summer; about eight painters stay through the winter months. “In the past we met from September to June but then the group said they wanted to paint year-round,” Mrs. Cabot said.

A painter herself, Mrs. Cabot brings in a display to focus the painters’ creativity, or the painters may bring a photograph or drawing they want to paint in watercolor. “I had been teaching for a long time, but I did not want to teach and have to prepare a formal lesson,” Mrs. Cabot said. Instead she says she “convenes” the group and “we all help one another.”

Ann House, 72, of West Tisbury, has been a member of the group for years. Like her mother, Mrs. House said, “I have been painting all my life.” On a recent Friday, Mrs. House was painting from a photograph and said, “It is nice not to have to wait for a sunny day.” She exhibits her work on island during the summer.

Outreach worker Mrs. Ellen Reynolds, MSW, said that she has 80 to 100 active case files on center clients and touches base with some clients five times a week, others once every six months depending upon the need. Her role is to help clients access the services needed to remain independent by working with both the seniors and their families.

Mrs. Reynolds said, “The Baby Boomers, and I’m one of them, and our parents, are more and more in need of the services we provide.”

Mrs. Reynolds, when asked what she might wish for in the near future to meet the Center’s client needs, said, “Ten more volunteers to drive people places — shopping, errands or just to get an ice cream.”

Future Challenges

State data and federal census from 1990 and 2000 document the steady increase in seniors living in the three towns served by the Up-Island Council on Aging and Senior Center.

For example, according to data provided to The Times by state officials, the Chilmark senior population increased by 13.8 percent between 1990 and 2000 and is projected to increase again from the 625 current seniors to 957 when the 2010 data is reported.

In West Tisbury, the 1990 senior population was 239. It grew to 334 in 2000 or by 39.7 percent, and is projected to increase to 647 in the 2010 census.

Of the incoming new seniors, the Baby Boomer Generation, Ms. Bowker says “I think they are going to be the most demanding generation. And we are going to have to do more with less.”

And, Ms. Bowker said, “For most of us it is fun too. There is a lot of sorrow and sadness and stress in people’s lives, but to be able to resolve or help people resolve their problems and issues is a great place to be. We are blessed. ”

For more information on the services and scheduled activity at the Up-Island Senior Center, telephone 508-693-2896.