Sad farewells as a program for seniors closes

Rosemary Allen checks Wilma Ruemeli's blood pressure as part of the Olney Senior Program.
Rosemary Allen checks Wilma Ruemeli's blood pressure as part of the Olney Senior Program. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 30, 2013

After offering friendship, food, and fitness to the elderly for decades, the Olney Senior Program held a final, melancholy celebration Friday on its last day.

On weekdays since the mid-1980s, program members went to the basement at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church for a meal, tai chi, bingo, and companionship.

For some, sitting and reading the paper among friends was enough to brighten their day. Many donned red, white, and blue novelty hats Friday because they won't be able to celebrate July 4 together.

The program's demise followed years of budget struggles by its sponsor, Lutheran Children and Family Service, which watched costs increase without a corresponding rise in funding.

With its own state funding flat, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging could give only the same $110,019 a year to the Olney Senior Program for the last seven years. Lutheran Children and Family Services contributed about $42,205 yearly.

It was not enough.

At least three other senior centers funded by PCA have closed because of financial hardship, vice president of operations Louis Colbert said.

The PCA will continue paying for meals and transportation for the more than 150 seniors in the program - "We're not abandoning anybody. That's important to us," Colbert said.

Many plan to go to the Juniata Park Older Adult Center, about four miles from St. Paul's Lutheran Church. Others are willing to make the trek to the Northeast Older Adult Center, which is about six miles away but which offers dancing and yoga.

Despite help from PCA and Lutheran Children and Family Service, saying goodbye was not easy.

Friday was filled with sad farewells following sips of sparkling cider in champagne glasses. Members ate miniature crab cakes, baked potato, and chocolate mousse - the good food was a trademark of the program, which emphasized feeding the elderly who might not eat well at home.

But members also recalled good times spent talking about current events, counting out calisthenics in one of many languages spoken in the program, and experimenting with new recipes in the church kitchen.

Lourdes Detuelo, 76, has been a regular at St. Paul's since the program began in the 1980s. Every Wednesday, she recites Psalm 23 by memory before lunch.

"I like to be with people," Detuelo said. "I like to talk."

Many of the seniors exchanged numbers and chatted about meeting up again at other centers. Before they left, some lined up to hug senior program coordinator Annette Lutz, who has worked there for 20 years. She pulled away with tears on her cheeks.

"The group in itself, they're like a family," Lutz said. "It's a support system in itself."

Contact Summer Ballentine at 215-854-2415,, or follow on Twitter @esballentine.

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