New Bedford has a new Council on Aging director and she has big plans for the city’s older adults.
Pamela Amaral-Lema took the reins at the COA in June after Director Deb Lee retired. She’s new to the role but not the COA, having spent her entire career working with older adults and the last 10 years at the New Bedford COA as Lee’s right hand.
She’s loved working with older adults from her first role as a dietary aide, she said.
“I really enjoyed taking time going up to the floors and speaking to the residents,” Amaral-Lema said. “I used to spend my breaks there and stay on after my shifts, and I really built friendships with a lot of the resi-dents there.”
“I found that passion early on working with older adults.”
As part of that passion, Amaral-Lema went back to school and earned a master’s degree in gerontology and the management of aging services from UMass Boston. She’s had 20 years of total experience, all of it lead-ing to this role in this city and how she can best help older adults here.
“I really want to get the senior centers a little busier and add more activities geared to the active adults,” said Amaral-Lema.
“Our older adults are baby boomers. They’re active. Some of them are still working, part-time or full-time, and some of them
are completely retired and enjoy it. So right now my mission is to research different activities to help our adults to age in place, to stay vital in the community, to build on friendships, and to increase that socialization piece that we lost during the pandemic.”
Her first attempts came this summer with two Twilight Bingo events in August and early September, both of which had a good turnout.
“It was 5-8 at night so folks were able to drive home before it got dark. We provided a dinner too. It was well attended,” said Amaral-Lema.
She also brought the holiday party back to Fort Taber Community Center last month after three years away.
Despite her focus on activities, Amaral-Lema said she is also a strong supporter of the COA’s Social Day program which was expanded under Lee. She understands the need for the program and the good it provides for individuals and families.
“My passion is still for Social Day,” she said. “It’s a therapeutic environment that helps older adults thrive and it provides great respite support for caregivers. Because that is running well, we always want to increase admissions…That is still a priority but just as much as a priority now that I’m the director is to build up the services at the centers.”
Services include activities for New Bedford older adults and other supports like transportation, particularly medical transportation.
“I’m in the process of applying for a grant to expand medical transportation to five days a week (from three days now) and probably add some personal and additional shopping dates to the schedule,” she said.
And she has her eye on how services, like SHINE counseling, can be expanded.
“I want to add more caregiver support groups,” Amaral-Lema said. “Particularly caregivers of those suffering from dementia and cognitive impairment.”
Amaral has high expectations and a big to-do list ahead of her. She expects some of it will take time to check off but says she hopes activities expand as early as this spring.
“I think coming into the new year we’ll really see a change and an increase of activities,” she said.
“Come springtime, I’m going to add Twilight Bingo again. I’m probably going to add a Single Seniors dinner or something similar to Fairhaven’s,” she continued. “I want to do more evening events, because they really like to have something to look forward to, to come out for something out of the norm.”
Like other Senior Centers, Amaral-Lema is aware that the needs and desires of older adults are shifting as people stay healthier and more active as they age. She’s attuned to and has personally witnessed changes in how people use the senior centers.
“We have the younger older adults who really enjoy the exercise programming, so they’ll come in, they’ll take a chair yoga class, a Zumba class, or a strength and conditioning class and then they’ll leave and go about their day. They’ll run errands or just live their own life,” she said.
That’s changed from earlier years, she said.
“When I first started about 10 years ago, we would see many older adults staying at the Senior Center for the whole day. They would have lunch. They would stay for Bingo. They would stay for whatever was going on. They weren’t engaged in an activity; they would kind of congregate in the corner in a little seating area. They’d chit chat and just socialize,” Amaral-Lema said. “We don’t see much of that anymore. Now, it’s really more of a hub. You go in, you participate in what you want, and then you leave. So we want to add more of those one-stop activities that people can enjoy and then once that’s completed, if they don’t enjoy the next activity, at least they feel fulfilled that they enjoyed the hour or hour and a half that they just participated in.”
As she starts her eighth month as director, Amaral-Lema knows there are both opportunities and challenges to her role and being able to support the city’s aging adults. The pandemic changed things, she said, created more isolation, and the COA is still shifting to meet those needs.
But she’s also clear that this is right where she wants to be.
“My number one goal has always been to help older adults to live independently and stay active with dignity and respect. I am passionate about it. I really want to see them thrive,” said Amaral-Lema. “This is a dream of mine. This has always been where I wanted to be.”