The Fitchburg Senior Center got its start from a group of farmers who didn’t want to be lonely.

The “Fitchburg Golden Agers,” as they called themselves, banded together in early 1970 as a way of socializing with one another.

Within a decade, the Town of Fitchburg created a place for them and other seniors to stay active and navigate the complexities of aging.

Now, 40 years after the town officially formed the Committee on Aging, the senior center it started has grown to serve a population of around 1,200 people and an average of 185 people a day, with more than 200 volunteers, recreational programs and social work programs.

The city gave the senior center a new building in 1988, at its current facility on Lacy Road in the civic campus, and it took over the senior center’s case management services from Oregon in 1992, when it was deemed a “focal point of service,” said Jill McHone, who has been Fitchburg’s senior center director since 2004.

In addition to adding social services to help seniors stay in their homes, the change also allowed the Fitchburg Senior Center to receive Dane County funding for the meal program, McHone said.

In 1995, it was accredited by the Wisconsin Association of Senior Centers. That same year, the senior center expanded meal services to five days a week.

“I suspect the city and the director advocated that we needed the local control, as more services were needed,” she said.

While providing meals and transportation are still priorities for Fitchburg Senior Center, the demand for exercise classes and social services has grown along with the population, assistant director David Hill said.

Exercise programs have just “taken off” in popularity, Hill said, as well as other educational health and wellness workshops and programs. Men’s and women’s groups are still popular as well, Hill added, and are often self-supported by some of the center’s 200 volunteers.

“It’s what the original format was, just sort of magnified,” he said.

Assessing needs

When Fitchburg Committee on Aging was created, it got to work immediately determining what area seniors wanted.

It were fortunate to have an easy way to make contact with many seniors right away.

According to the March 29, 1979, edition of the Fitchburg Star, the committee announced that it would conduct interviews of citizens ages 55 and older at polling locations the following week, during the April 3 election.

Its members collected information from senior residents in order to make a recommendation to the Town Board, committee member Roger Chapman told the Star at the time.

“We are particularly interested in knowing what the concerns and needs of the town’s older residents are,” he said.

The primary needs they identified were food and travel assistance. Recreation and enrichment programs, while not as strongly emphasized as nutrition assistance and mobility concerns – were also brought up.

In the Thursday, April 26, 1979, Star, Aging chairperson Judy Koeppl said the issue of travel was “especially significant” since those polled did not have regular access to transportation.

“This was not a random poll,” she said. “The participants had to be mobile in order to get to the polling place, and as voters, they represent only one segment of the community.

“The fact that the majority recognized transportation to be a serious problem for some of their peers, is an indication of how wide-spread the problem is.”

First services

Much of the senior center as it’s known today began to take shape over the committee’s first eight years.

In April 1979, Betty Anderson, then an Oregon Area Senior Center worker, was hired as an outreach person for Fitchburg senior residents. Her job remained within the Oregon Area Senior Center, McHone said, as the crucial case management services stayed with Oregon.

On May 31, 1979, the first meals for seniors started being held on Thursdays at old Town Hall on Fish Hatchery Road.

William Stoneman, a member on the Committee on Aging, said in the May 17, 1979, edition of the Fitchburg Star the program would guarantee seniors would get at least one good meal a week.

“The social aspect of the dinner is as important as the nutritional,” he said. “There are 600 people in Fitchburg over 55 … many of them have no social life at all. The noon meals will give them the opportunity to get together with other people and have a good time – to develop friendships.”

Eight years later, in 1987, the senior center became a department at City Hall.

McHone said that’s a short timeline for starting a city service.

“In the world of governments, 1987 isn’t really that long to wait and say, ‘We’re going to add this,’” she said. “It’s a budget impact for the whole city.”

A new focus

The senior center staff has grown as the demand for services has increased. Now, two social workers assist seniors in ways that weren’t as in-demand years ago.

Navigating the medical world has become so complicated, Hill said, that the demand for social workers to help people and their families have a better grasp on their health decisions has led the senior center to make social work a key component of its services over the past 15 years.

“It’s not just going into a home and asking if they want home-delivered meals,” he said. “It’s very much more complex.”

Lack of family members living near seniors also makes a difference in the demand for social services, such as information, referral to other programs, advocacy and in-home visits, McHone said. When the senior center began four decades ago, McHone said, families often were together for longer, often only had one parent working and lived in tight-knit communities. Today, she added, that’s not as often the case.

McHone said she feels the sense of community between her staff and the seniors is what sets them apart from other senior centers.

“We always hope this is an extension of their family when they come here,” she said. “It’s like you’re coming home to people that care about you … we are their family, and that’s a really important role to play, to give somebody that purpose and that quality of life.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.