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Senior centers connect Queens’ diverse elderly

Meanwhile, lively music mingles with laughter and chatter wafts down the stairs from the second-floor hall. Next to it is a quiet room where a few seniors sit at individual computers, learning basic Internet skills. It will soon be time for lunch - hot open roast beef and turkey breast sandwiches with accompanying side vegetables, a salad and a sweet dish.

A couple communities away at the Rego Park Senior Center, volunteers of a program called telephone reassurance wait eagerly to meet the homebound seniors they stay in touch with twice a week over the phone. Elsewhere in the center, seniors of different ethnicities sit around tables playing dominoes or just sharing a quiet cup of coffee with friends.

Centers such as these dot Queens' landscape, and all offer similar options for area seniors. According to the 2000 Census, New York City is home to about 1 million seniors. Of these, nearly 300,000 reside in Queens. Some reports say each center in the borough caters to nearly 5,500 seniors, one of the highest concentrations in the city.

"Queens has a lot to offer for seniors," says Diane Lieberman, an artist who has been teaching borough elderly arts and crafts in different senior centers for more than 30 years.

"There are many centers which seniors have access to, and most facilities are either free or some, like parks and museums, have a very nominal fee," Lieberman says.

For instance, a day trip organized by a senior center to one of the most popular destinations, Atlantic City, N.J., averages about $20 including food. Activities at Flushing Meadows Corona Park can be availed of as can those at Alley Pond Park and other neighborhood recreation centers.

Being one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the country implies that the senior population, too, is equally diverse. Consider that in 2002 nearly 62 percent of the city's 1 million elderly were minorities, according to www.citymeals.org, an organization that provides funds for agencies that provide meals to the city's elderly population.

"It's a fantastic place to live," says Ellen Fuchs, a retired first-grade teacher who volunteers at the Rego Park Senior Center and is a longtime Rego Park resident.

"The ethnicity is great. You'll always find someone from your own country here. The public transportation is great and most things are accessible," she says.

And Irina Sarkisova, director of the Rego Park Senior Center, says, "It is multicultural and diverse, making it a nice place to live." But, she adds, most seniors find it hard to relocate after living here most of their lives.

Herbert Sinclair, a retired pharmacist who has lived in Queens for more than 30 years, agrees. "It's too late to move now, even though I like the countryside and would love to live away from the city."

Others wouldn't dream of being elsewhere. Says Karen Taylor of SAGE/Queens, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, based in Jackson Heights: "There's a great sense of tolerance here. Most of us grew up here and like living here. This is where we belong. It's a thriving senior gay and lesbian community," and it's where people find others with similar life experiences, something critically important especially with senior gays and lesbians - "most of whom are very lonely and isolated," she adds.

This isolation also occurs because of ethnic beliefs, Sarkisova says. "They believe it's a stigma going to a senior center. Many think only poor people come to senior centers or only citizens are allowed. They don't realize it's a federal program for everyone elderly regardless of financial or citizenship or racial status."

Her center, she says, celebrates all kinds of ethnic festivals encouraging people to even bring dishes from their own cuisines. Coming up is an outreach program for Indians in Rego Park. "There is so much available to seniors, if only they come and find out," she says.

Those who do discover the centers find a dramatic change in their lives. Ana Berroa, a senior at the Institute of Puerto Rican and Hispanic Elderly of Elmhurst and Jackson Heights who lost her job in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, swears by the centers and the work they do in Queens.

"Being a senior citizen means living a happier, longer life," says Berroa, a retired accountant who has lived in Queens for 40 years. "And for most of us it's a second home. We feel safe in Queens. We can speak our own languages."

Berroa lost even her home, she says, and was forced to live with friends. But when she found out about the senior center and went there, she was able to get back on her feet and has now been placed with another elderly woman who was looking for a companion to live with.

While a lot of programs centers used to offer, such as learning English and Access-a-Ride, have faced cutbacks, Berroa still feels there's a lot for seniors in Queens.

"There are many different programs through which people can find shelter, rooming places, and just help each other with needs." At the Jackson Heights center, she says, they provide translation services and help with making phone calls to pharmacies and making appointments.

So if you're a senior and live in crowded, congested Queens, should you despair? No, say most seniors. Because there's still a lot to life in the borough. All you have to do is reach out.

Reach contributing writer Rashmi Vaish by e-mail at news@timesledger.com.

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