Plan to build Shelter Island center falters

Facility for senior citizens draws criticism as unnecessary tax burden

May 07, 2000|By Robert Lipsyte | Robert Lipsyte,New York Times News Service

SHELTER ISLAND, N.Y. -- Snugly sheltered by geography and sensibility from the workaday bustle of Long Island's North Fork and the glamour of the Hamptons to the south, this summer resort island has become a kind of year-round Elder Dorado.

More than a third of its 2,300 winter residents are over 60, which is twice the average nationally and in the metropolitan area. The percentage may be even higher in summer when the population swells to about 10,000.

But even when gray is a primary color, it is not an ethnic, racial, religious or socioeconomic group.

Anthropologists from the booming geriatric-industrial complex might find a monograph of sorts here in the faltering campaign by some older residents to build a $750,000 center exclusively for the island's elderly.

The plan has been attacked by some of the island's older residents who think a senior center is unnecessary or should not be done without doing something as well for working parents and teen-agers; they seem afraid of a tax increase, of change, of isolation, of seeming greedy, of being a burden.

'Which old people?'

"Which old people are we talking about?" asks the Rev. Fred Puelle, 65, a retired Lutheran minister who leads the island's Senior Citizens Affairs Council, an advisory board, and delivers Meals on Wheels. "The ones rocking in the corner or the folks who flirt, work out at the fitness center and enjoy the grape? The folks waiting for me to bring them food or the ones down in Palm Beach for the winter?"

Rockers or flirters, natives or weekenders, the old on Shelter Island did not arrive from somewhere else waving Medicare cards and a lease on a condo in an isolated village with the word leisure or heritage on the locked gate. Because the nation is aging rapidly, what is happening here now, while unusual, may be the harbinger of a returning way of life; the old here aged here and stayed here.

This 8,000-acre island, one-third of which is protected by the Nature Conservancy, was settled in the 17th century by the English, who displaced Indians and built a food and timber plantation worked by African slaves. Later, it was a base for commercial fishermen.

Now, the mansions are best seen from the water, and the scattering of trailers and rusted cars in weedy back yards tend to be clustered in the island's middle. Most homes appear to be middle class, an eclectic mix of suburban ranches and split-levels, frame cottages and beachy boxes.

But as with any small island where the inhabitants know all and reveal little, the facades are misleading; living next door to occasional weekenders with city apartments and stacks of frequent-flier miles are the house painters and real estate agents who depend on them.

And both groups include many on Medicare.

'It's like everywhere else'

The island is not a place created for the needs of sunset-special diners; there are few stores or restaurants, it is accessible only by ferry and plagued by power blackouts, rampaging deer and Lyme ticks, all local badges of hardy courage. Local politicians can safely express their concern for the young families driven off-island because the older people who helped drive up real estate prices are so fragmented by their politics, economics and class.

"You want to think that this island is very special," says Art Barnett, the 70-year-old former publisher and editor of the weekly Shelter Island Reporter and now its town hall reporter. "But I've come to think that it's like everywhere else, except maybe you can see things more clearly here."

Most poignantly and universally, you can see those sore spots where individual vulnerability rubs against independence, and where the romanticized American past rubs against the present reality of communities trying to care for their own.

The heroes of the island are the volunteers of the fire and rescue companies; yet the aging population has not only increased their workload, it has lowered their pool of young recruits.

Barnett, who opposes the all-senior center, and Seymour Weissman, 68, its most vocal champion, are aware of those sore spots.

Weissman, a retired Manhattan television producer, describes himself as the flamethrower of the nonprofit foundation formed to raise the money for the prospective all-senior center. Stocky, emphatic, he punches out his words.

"We've got an invisible elderly population here suffering from malnutrition and from the greatest disease of all, loneliness," he said. "A center would offer socialization, give caregivers respite, we could have nurses, technicians, social workers come in from off-island. There's a great deal of federal and foundation money available, but you have to have the building first. The money goes to programs, not to bricks."

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