Things haven’t improved much for St. John’s senior population since the passing of hurricanes Irma and Maria two years ago. They need a rebuilt senior center, bus for transportation and help with disaster relief, officials told a Senate panel meeting Friday on the island.
Department of Human Services Assistant Commissioner Michal Rhymer-Browne said senior centers are supposed to provide recreational, health, educational and spiritual services. But the Adrian Senior Center on St. John was heavily damaged by the 2017 storms. The building, Rhymer-Browne said, is owned by Virgin Islands Housing Authority and is leased to the Department of Human Services, but the senior programs have been unable to use the location.
“According to data compiled by the Social Security Administration, a man reaching age 65 today can expect to live on average until 84 and a woman until age 86. Furthermore, one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90 and one in ten will live past 95. Seniors are living longer and with that comes an increased demand for senior services,” Rhymer-Browne said.
“Unfortunately, the Adrian Center seniors and staff had to relocate operations several times since 2017 due to the lack of adequate and available space on St. John,” she told the Senate Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging, which met Friday at the Cleone Henrietta Creque Legislative Conference Room on St. John.
Rhymer-Browne said the Housing Authority estimates seniors will be able to return in 2020.
Before the storms, average monthly attendance at the senior center was 28 and higher. The loss of the facility has dropped it to only 11 seniors, she said.
Rhymer-Browne said the department was confident that after repairs are made and seniors are able to use the space again, the numbers will grow.
“The relocations and lack of a space where the seniors and staff can feel free to leave their supplies and projects have negatively impacted the senior center on St. John,” Rhymer-Browne said. But using the department will use the senior center’s revolving funds to refurbish the Adrian Senior Center and supply it with furniture, supplies, computers and equipment.
The seniors of St. John also desperately need the service of a bus for transportation, Adrian Senior Center Director Abigail Hendricks said.
Though Human Services will use a portion of the revolving fund in 2020 to purchase a new four-wheel drive SUV that will transfer seniors from their homes to the senior center, Hendricks pointed out that there is only one bus and it is not equipped to handle the rough terrain of St. John.
“The collaboration among the senior facilities are strong because we are underserved.” Hendricks said. “When St. Thomas gets five buses and St. Croix gets five buses, we get one. That is just the dynamics of the separation of the islands. But it is generally OK because one program supplements the other.”
Rhymer-Browne said the Division of Senior Affairs continues to prevent isolation among the elderly, despite the challenge of providing critically needed services to a growing population of senior citizens with limited financial resources and a territory still in recovery from the hurricanes.
But St. John Community Foundation Director Celia Kalousek said some of the elderly on St. John are still living “in deplorable circumstances that no one should be living in.”
Kalousek said though the Federal Emergency Management Agency offers disaster relief, the lengthy and inefficient process of acquiring it led seniors to experience what she called “FEMA fatigue.”
“They just could not handle it. Most of them would say ‘I am not doing it anymore. I am not going to go through it. So, I am going to go without as opposed to having it,’” Kalousek said.
Rhymer-Browne said the department is aware of the many challenges that are ahead in fiscal year 2020.
In other action, the committee forwarded Bill No. 33-0127, which seeks to honor veterans by naming a roundabout in Cruz Bay “The Veteran’s Circle,” and appropriating $20,000 to the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts for the creation of a monument.
Sens. Myron Jackson, Javan James, Dwayne DeGraff and Athneil Thomas were all present for the vote and voted favorably on the bill. Sens. Alicia Barnes, Oakland Benta and Steven Payne Sr. were all absent from the vote.