Her affection for the job and the seniors she sees every day have kept her motivated all these years but Mary Ellen Gomes is finally ready to retire from her post as director of Westport’s Council on Aging.
“I’m 73 and to tell you the truth, I’m tired,” she said. “It’s a wonderful job but it takes a lot of energy, emotionally and spiritually.”
Her last day on the job will be January 13 after which she and others in her family will head to Arruba to unwind for a bit. Then it’s back to Westport and back to school.
Ms. Gomes took the job back in 1995, left in 2004, and returned in 2008.
She said she imagines many in town perceive the Council on Aging as that place in Westport where seniors “have parties, go on trips and play bingo.”
That’s part of it, she said, but there is much more to the COA than fun and games.
It is also a lifeline for elders and for their families who are challenged by the difficulties faced when a loved one grows older.
“We are the social services arm of the town,” she said.
Many of the seniors she sees at the COA have lost spouses and live alone.
“Many of them would be isolated from the world without this,” she said. “This is where their friends are.”
The center’s social day program gives these seniors a daily destination and, in some cases, it also gives caregivers a chance to focus on their own lives — to get things done and to get a break. Often these caregivers are exhausted — “Their well-being can be every bit as much a concern as that of the person for whom they are caring.”
Sometimes the staff there spots issues that others may have missed — or are having difficulty facing.
“So many elders love the home that they have lived in for so long but looking from the outside you realize that that may not be this wisest course,” she said. “There comes a point when they really shouldn’t be there, that the house is just too much for them to handle.”
And many seniors try to keep the home they love “while trying to exist on very little income or while dealing with health issues — these can be a bad combination.”
For people burdened by such worries, those hours at the COA are precious, she believes.
“Watching people in their later years — 85 to 95 and even older — just having a blast … Watching them play balloon ping pong is just a joy … Just this morning I was watching a group doing exercises — they were doing mouth and face exercises everyone just being silly and laughing. That’s what I’ll miss most.”
Funding is always an issue and Ms. Gomes said that part of the job’s “stress is balancing how you will pay for everything that needs doing.”
But Westport, she said, “has been very supportive — not to a frivolous level but the town comes through.” At Christmas, she said, it is not unusual to open an envelope and find a check — s0me small, some surprisingly large. She said she was delighted recently when Gary Mauk saw that the holiday food basket program needed a boost — “He went out and collected $600 for it” and then helped with deliveries dressed as Santa.
And recently there were more gifts to celebrate. The St. George Chapter 441 Catholic Family Life presented the COA with a $1,725 check. The money included proceeds from a New York City bus trip plus a $500 match from the Chapter.
Her next project is to go back to school. She’ll attend Antioch in Ames, Iowa, to obtain a certificate in church ministry.Ms. Gomes lives in New Bedford “but my heart is in Westport,” the place where many of her friends live and where she goes to — Pacific Union Church.
Her late husband Walter was a New Bedford firefighter and her son Scott is now a captain in the New Bedford Department. And various other relatives have also been firefighters — “Everyone in the family speaks firefighting.”
Her other two children also live nearby — son Michael in New Bedford and daughter Nancy in Barrington.
She won’t be the director any more, but Ms. Gomes said she wants to stay close to the friends she has made there.
“It’s been my job but you fall in love with these people. That doesn’t change.”