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East Harlem Aims to Become More Friendly for Seniors

By DNAinfo Staff on July 27, 2010 7:02am

By Simone Sebastian

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

EAST HARLEM — Non-smoking sections are a thing of the past. But could no-music sections be next for some New York businesses?

An initiative is underway to make the city's businesses and streets more senior friendly, from lowering the volume of stores' ambient music to increasing the size of print on menus.

East Harlem is the project's first target. The New York Academy of Medicine, which is overseeing the initiative, will reveal its recommendations on how to make elderly life easier there at an Aug. 31 luncheon.

Running errands is a bigger chore than it should be in East Harlem, senior residents say. They have to plan trips when store lines will be short and along routes where bathrooms and benches are available for pit stops, they explained.

Pathmark grocery store lends to the congestion at Lexington Avenue and 125th Streets
Pathmark grocery store lends to the congestion at Lexington Avenue and 125th Streets
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DNAinfo/Simone Sebastian

"You stand up, you stand up, you stand up. That's all you do," said Thelma Thomas, 76, of a typical day of running errands.

Local businesses "should have a place to sit down for people with walkers or canes," said Martha Duquesnay, 58, taking a break from a game of dominoes at the Lincoln Houses Senior Center on 135th Street.

Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes the planned East Harlem "aging-improvement district," has given $10,500 in public funding to the project.

She said she wants to see the neighborhood become "a place to age with dignity and ease."

"I have a lot of senior centers and senior buildings in my district," Mark-Viverito said. "How do we make the streets safer, an easier place for them to navigate?"

Opening store bathrooms to older residents is among the the changes suggested for East Harlem. Encouraging businesses to play calmer tunes — not too loud or too offensive for elderly customers — could also be on the table, said Dorian Block, a policy associate for The New York Academy of Medicine.

East Harlem resident Ethel Johnson, 85, said she has to run errands early in the morning to avoid long lines at the bank and grocery store.

"Because my knees hurt and my feet," Johnson explained.

But she noted that some existing efforts to make businesses  senior friendly already aren't working. She noted that some banks have "senior lines", which she avoids.

"Those are the longest lines in the banks," Johnson said. "They're supposed to be shorter and quicker. But they're the worst line."

None of the academy's recommendations will be enforceable. But the academy hopes to convince businesses to implement the senior-friendly measures voluntarily, by showing them that they can help their bottom-lines.

"It's a philosophy that we're selling," Block said. "We're trying to educate people. Help them realize that older people are customers and have more money than younger people."

According to an AARP report, people over 50 are expected to outspend younger adults by $1 trillion this year.

The recommendations stem from two years of investigation into East Harlem living, including discussions, surveys and focus groups with older residents, Block said. The seniors said a lack of public seating, bathrooms and lighting on streets and in businesses hampered the quality of life for East Harlem's oldest residents.

Navigating the busy intersection at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue was a common complaint, Councilwoman Mark-Viverito said. The intersection is a public transportation hub and the location of a popular Pathmark supermarket and other large stores.

"It's the last place I want to go," said 85-year-old Johnson. "I try to make my visit as short as possible. I can't stand up forever."

Providing van transportation, improving safety and stationing volunteers to help seniors with shopping bags there could be among the recommendations, Mark-Viverito said.

"It's an area that people need to get to," she said of the popular intersection. "It's been a real issue and challenge."

The Upper West side is the next neighborhood that will be targeted by the senior-friendly initiative, Block said.