It’s not just the black bean and sweet potato chili, the menu item on a February day at Encore’s daily lunch, offered a no cost for seniors in the basement of St. Malachy’s Church in Manhattan’s Theatre District.
The food is appreciated among the approximately 50 diners this day, but the camaraderie may be more important, says Michael Lawrence, one of the regulars.
He’s 64, a retired engineer for now, who finds the laughter and the daily get-togethers, including education on issues such as nutrition, Tai-Chi, creative writing and Zumba, a valued part of his day. He especially enjoys the regular birthday parties.
Here I am not alone.
“Here, I’m not home alone. We laugh, we make jokes,” he says. “Most of my friends are older, and they have moved to warmer places,” notes Michael, who lives alone in a nearby apartment. When Covid struck the event business he owned, he was forced to retire, especially after he found it hard to find engineering employment with the baggage of his advanced years. Encore provides a place to connect for now.
“I’m moving on to the next chapter. I don’t know what that is,” he says.
Encore Community Services, a Catholic Charities agency, bills itself as “Broadway’s Longest Running Act of Loving Concern,” having been founded in 1977. The socialization process today includes a lesson in nutrition, with warnings to watch sugar and fat intake, increase good cholesterol, and eat as much fresh fruit and vegetables as possible, eschewing sweetened or salted items from cans.
They just want to make you happy.
The lesson helps, but it’s also the socialization that helps Encore seniors keep to good health practices in diet and exercise. Encore programs counter what extensive studies describe as an epidemic of loneliness among the old.
An estimated 700,000 New Yorkers live alone. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine about a quarter of all adults over 65 in the U.S. are considered socially isolated. A compilation of studies by the Center for Disease Control noted that social isolation can increase premature death, dementia, heart disease and stroke, among other ill effects.
The job of Nieves Taveras, who has been with Encore for 27 years and serves as the activities coordinator, is to combat that isolation. She has watched the scope of the program expand, as regulars come to Encore from beyond the Theatre District neighborhood, including occasional visitors from Connecticut and New Jersey, as well as Queens and Brooklyn.
The people come for the food and their friends.
“The people come for the food and their friends,” she says, noting how she has watched many of the regulars age in place, with some having to now get their meals at home, another service provided by Encore.
“Food scarcity has become a big deal,” she says. “After the pandemic everything became so expensive.” SNAP and other supports have generally not kept up with the rise in the cost of food. And Manhattan rents in particular continue to go up, creating a choice between paying for food and housing for many Baby Boomers aging in the city, competing for space with a constant swirl of newcomers.
“Everybody wants to live in Manhattan,” she says. “But these people were already here.”
On this day, the socializing din makes the nutrition lecture difficult to hear. But that’s part of the atmosphere for Fran Scott, another regular patron. She lives on the East Side and discovered Encore after seeking help for two friends who were experiencing economic stress. She’s learned some Spanish, from friends she’s met around the lunch table, and enjoys the dance lessons and the activities, and appreciates that the Catholic Charities agency holds no agenda other than providing support for New York seniors in their retirement years.
At Encore, she says, “They just want to make you happy. Who else would you hear that from?”