Commissioner Edwin Mendez-Santiago spoke at length at the TimesLedger's offices last week about the restructuring of services, saying the agency's goal is to keep senior citizens living at home for as long as possible while streamlining certain aspects of the operation. Some service providers who work with seniors, however, say the agency's plans will not benefit the population it is designed to serve and the fear is that the agency will close centers it sees as underutilized."No, we don't have plans to close centers," Mendez-Santiago said. The agency may award the services contract to another provider, but the community is not to lose any centers, he added. "I can guarantee this is not a plan to reduce senior centers," he said.The Council of Senior Centers and Services NYC, an umbrella group representing more than 200 senior services agencies, said in a Feb. 21 bulletin that the agency had said exactly that earlier in the month."DFTA has stated that some senior centers would close, but hasn't said how many and which ones," the organization wrote. "At the Feb. 14 City Council hearing, Council members asked why the city would close senior centers when the senior population is growing - we'll never get the space back once it is lost."Of 325 senior centers in the five boroughs, about 100 are run by the city Housing Authority, some by the Citywide Administrative Services Department and a number are in private facilities, Mendez-Santiago said."I don't control all the sites," the commissioner said. "Some are totally dependent on the city for their contracts and some are very well-funded."Meals are essentially the gauge of a center's usage and a decline in service in New York City reflects what is essentially a nationwide trend, Mendez-Santiago said."Counting just the number of meals served, 44 percent of centers are underutilized, meaning they can't reach 90 percent of their goal. When you look at the underutilized centers, 80 to 90 percent is okay, but some can't reach 50 percent," he said.The city also provides meals to some housebound seniors, a program the agency is looking to revamp by serving frozen meals where possible, he said."In the current model, the senior gets whatever the center cooks that day," Mendez-Santiago said. "We're not telling seniors they have to take a frozen meal. If a caseworker visits a senior and feels home delivery daily is better, they can get it."Likewise, if seniors opt for frozen meals and then do not like the practice, they can go back to hot meals, he said."We have over 98 contracts to provide meals, mainly through senior centers," Mendez-Santiago said. "We found that a lot of centers were turning on meals rather than finding out what services a person needed."The agency's plans revolve around providing services that are more tailored to seniors' needs instead of taking a one-size-fits all approach and limiting caseworkers' case loads to no more than 65 people each, a process which has already begun, Mendez-Santiago said.Reach reporter Alex Christodoulides by e-mail at achristodo
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