Fairfax Seniors Fear Loss of Gathering Place

Groveton Center Is Among Services Targeted for Closure Because of Budget Cuts

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009; Page B01

The reality of Fairfax County's projected $650 million shortfall weighed heavily at the Groveton Senior Center yesterday. The facility in the Alexandria area could close, one of several budget cuts that could affect the elderly.

Opened in May 2002, the center has been an additional home for a diverse group of seniors who come to play cards, use the treadmills, learn Spanish, eat a warm lunch or just enjoy a level of human contact that would otherwise be missing from their lives. Many said they walk to the center and would probably stay home instead of finding transportation to another facility.

"You're taking the heart out of people if you close this place," said Jack Kaufman, 72, a retired federal worker and former competitive bodybuilder who teaches the exercise classes. "Seniors have done their thing for the county and the country. They have served in the Army. They have volunteered. They have raised their children. And they have paid their taxes."

As communities across the region grapple with plummeting home values and a dogged recession, they are weighing cuts great and small. Elected officials are contemplating service reductions that will affect the poor, the sick and schoolchildren. But among the worst hit will be the elderly, a fast-growing population that sometimes suffers disproportionately when services -- often their only lifeline to the broader community -- are eliminated.

This week, officials in Fairfax began the daunting task of making hundreds of cuts to close the projected shortfall in next year's budget, a chasm that also will be bridged by raising fees and increasing the real estate tax rate. In an initial set of recommendations unveiled Monday, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin proposed a host of cuts that will affect those over 55, who account for almost one in four Fairfax County residents and whose ranks have grown substantially over the past decade.

Among the measures proposed by Griffin are the closure of Groveton, which operates out of the South County Center off Richmond Highway, and an adult day-care center in Annandale. In both cases, officials expect that the displaced patrons can be absorbed at neighboring centers.

Griffin has recommended eliminating one lunch each week at all 13 of the county's senior centers and canceling a voucher program that provides discount coupons to senior citizens for taxi rides -- a popular service used by more than 4,500 residents. He has also recommended reducing the availability of a transportation service used by seniors and others, which is known as Fastran.

Even a proposal to cut down on paper by digitizing more documents would have a disproportionate effect on seniors, who are less likely to own, or be comfortable reading materials on, a computer.

Such changes can be devastating to seniors, who can become isolated as they age, said Tony Hylton, spokesman for AARP Virginia.

"The home- and community-based care programs are particularly important, because in a lot of instances you find that those type of services allow older people to stay in their homes and be independent," he said.

But this year, as officials contend with the worst economic crisis in a generation, few will be spared. County officials said it was a difficult decision to recommend the closure of Groveton but said they had little choice. In shuttering the center, they expect to save $67,000 by eliminating one staff position. There is no immediate plan for how the space would be used.

They recommend that the 80 or so seniors who visit the Groveton center each day go instead to the Gum Springs Community Center, which is two miles away and is big enough to accommodate both groups. In time, officials said, they hope the change will be seen as minimally disruptive and fiscally responsible.

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