Spencer House has been a lifeline for 40 years and plans to continue serving seniors even as demand increases
For Judy Bonnell, Spencer House is a lifeline that helps keep her mind and body active.
The senior center on Morris Street in south Halifax has been open for 40 years and despite being short on resources, is looking to expand its services.
Bonnell, a member of Spencer House and also a board member, said she walks two miles from her home to the center most days.
“It keeps my mind active. It keeps my body active,” she said. “So it keeps me sane in every way, mentally, physically and in every other way.”
The grass-roots organization officially opened in June 1983 and changed its name from the Halifax Senior Citizens Service League in honor of Lady Diana Spencer.
It provides a space where seniors can eat together, play cards, do crafts, take fitness classes — and share a few laughs. Most programs and services are run by a dedicated group of volunteers.
On a Monday when CBC News was visiting, the dining area was buzzing with chatter as volunteers served up prepared shepherd’s pie in the center’s kitchen.
Retired teacher Glen Amirault has been a member of Spencer House for six years and also sits on the board. He decided to volunteer there to have meaningful contact with others, and he says the center brings people together who might otherwise be home alone.
Amirault said after spending time together, visitors to Spencer House were “like family”.
“We tease each other like crazy. And we laugh. There is a lot of laughter here and very little sadness. Very little.”
According to Amirault, the center can be transformative.
“I’ve seen people come here who are extremely shy and extremely reclusive and through interacting with others, especially our theater club, they’ve skyrocketed,” he said.
“They went from very shy to open. It built her confidence and if you just look around now you can hear it, you can see it.”
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when meeting in person was not possible, members called each other so they did not feel so isolated.
Allison Davis, the general manager, said they serve about 25 subsidized lunches each day, which they sell for $7. As of early 2023, the center has also been offering a cold breakfast for $2, which attracts about 15 people daily. No one is turned away from the meal, she says.
Soaring food inflation means they will run a deficit this year, which subsidizes the cost of meals, but Davis said the board has decided their primary responsibility is to meet the needs of seniors.
“We’re not going to dump the plight of inflation on the people who come here and need food,” Davis said.
“We’re going to find a way to raise the money to continue subsidizing the cost of food, which is important because if people aren’t eating, there’s nothing else to do.”
Since reopening after the COVID shutdown, Amirault said the number of people coming to the center has steadily increased, and now they can’t accommodate everyone for lunch because they don’t have enough space.
Davis said the center is currently finding it difficult to meet the needs of its clients.
Plans are afoot to convert the front of the building into a space for community gatherings during the warmer months, she said.
She said kids from the upstairs daycare are already spending time with the seniors doing crafts or making music, and the new initiative, called the Age-Friendly Community Project, will allow for more collaborative activities.
As Davis looks to the center’s future, she faced another unexpected hurdle when late last week a pipe ruptured, causing a temporary closure.
According to Davis, the damaged room is currently being dried out and a ceiling needs repairs, but there was no damage to computers or other equipment.
The center will not be closed “a minute longer than necessary,” she added.
Spencer House has always relied on community help, Davis said, and anyone willing to volunteer or donate their time can do so through its website.
The center is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm and also offers other services including computer training, a podiatry clinic and tax assistance.
While membership is not required, it costs $20 per year and offers benefits such as discounted meals, voting rights, and eligibility for board membership. Visitors can still participate in all meals and services offered.
“To mark our 40th anniversary, we established what we call the Ruby Fund,” Davis said, “a sustainability account to ensure that Spencer House will continue to serve people well into the future and that we continue to be that safe place for the elderly.” become adults to come and be with each other.“
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