A Visit to Jamestown

By Susan E. Bouchard
(Photographs by Susan E. Bouchard and Lynda Read)

View of Tai Chi classroom

Gary Girard leads a morning Tai Chi class.

Sometimes people use the phrase “being on an island” as a metaphor for isolationism, being alone and cut off from the rest of the world. But on the small island of Jamestown, R.I., this couldn’t be further from the truth. Quickly becoming one of the age-friendliest towns in the state, Jamestown has come to symbolize a paradise of sorts for its older citizens. In a state that holds the distinction of having the largest percentage of adults 85 and older in the nation, one in four Jamestown residents are currently 60 and older. This is among the highest percentages of older adults of Rhode Island towns. Many of Jamestown’s nearly 5,500 residents view the natural barrier the waters of Narragansett Bay presents as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. These very defined borders make it easier for its senior center, headed by Ellen Conway-Vietri, to reach out and draw people into its many activities.

As the senior services coordinator, Conway-Vietri brings a wealth of knowledge to the center with a professional background in health, wellness and communication. Her boundless energy helps make ideas reality. Having fun, staying healthy and enjoying life’s pleasures are some of the things she keeps in mind when planning new classes to offer. Having built partnerships with local businesses, there are now dozens of activities, programs, trips and educational forums for adults age 50 plus.

View of Tai Chi classroom.

Gary and Anita Girard share a laugh during the warm-up circle at the start of the morning Tai Chi class.

One of the longest-running programs at the center is Tai Chi, facilitated by Jamestown resident Gary Girard; quick to point out that he is not the instructor, just a longtime participant who facilitates the group. The class begins warming up by walking in a large circle around the room. Each new arrival joins the circle chatting and greeting each other as light streams into the windows surrounding the room.

After a few minutes, Girard leads the group through a rhythmic set of gentle movements. Based on an ancient form of martial arts Tai Chi is often described as meditation in motion because each posture flows into the next keeping the body in constant movement. Tai Chai for Arthritis is specifically designed by Arthritis specialists to relieve pain, help prevent falls and improve overall health and wellness. It is perfect for anyone who wants to add some movement and exercise into their lives. Girard quietly reminds the group to work at their own pace, with a kind, reassuring voice that is especially

Anna at desk with open notebook, writing.

Rusty Pen’s Writing Workshop Anna Pomfret participates.

familiar to one of the participants, Anita, since she has been married to Gary for nearly 60 years. The couple started coming to Tai Chi years ago when it was one of the only programs other than the mid-day meal available at the center. Now there are dozens of activities, to choose from.

Another popular program at the center is the Rusty Pens Writing Workshop, led by Gayen Thompson, who encourages participants to put pen to paper with word prompts. Writing in timed sequences, they write quickly and then share their stories with each other. No formal writing experience is required, just the desire to be creative, have fun and meet new people. This is just what a typical Monday is like at the center. After a cost-free morning of exercise for the body Tai Chai and the mind Rusty Pens, it is time to head downstairs for lunch. A three-course meal is served weekdays in the senior center’s West Street Cafe. There is a suggested donation of $3 and reservations are required since meals are created by an off-site caterer. A quick glance at this week’s menu includes chicken pot pie, fish and chips, roasted pork loin with applesauce and lighter choices such as sandwiches and salads are always an option. Each meal begins with soup and ends with dessert and is a chance to get to know people. Sitting at round tables seems to foster community as the room was filled with quiet laughter.

A new age-friendly project is getting underway on Jamestown. An 8-week pilot program starting in April, on Thursdays, if you need a ride, the center’s shuttle will come and pick you up. This is one of the perks of living on a small island, with very defined borders they can try new things like offering door-to-door service. According to Conway-Vietri, one of the things that many older adults fear most about growing older is losing their independence by having to give up their car keys. With this new program, the center is trying to find ways to help keep older adults involved in their community. So, give the center a call and reserve a spot in the van and at the lunch table.

While there are many opportunities for fun and fitness on the island, life doesn’t always happen exactly the way you imagine it will. Elizabeth Richter and her husband Donald moved to Jamestown because they felt it was the perfect place to retire. An island with sweeping views and the quiet lifestyle they were looking for, in a state strategically located in between where two, of their three children lived – one in Massachusetts and the other in New York. Donald was a pastor in the United Church of Christ and for most of the five decades they were married they lived in housing provided by the church. Since they were retiring, this was the first time the couple was choosing everything for themselves. They quickly became part of the community. In 2014, they bought a house but soon after they learned Donald was sick. Sadly, the story of their lives was about to change. Within months her husband passed away, she was not only heartbroken but she was unsure of what to do next.

Closeup of Gayen writing. Pen on paper in notebook.

Rusty Pen’s Writing Workshop group leader Gayen Thompson, writes in a timed sequence.

She knew she couldn’t be the only person facing these challenges, so she did what came naturally to her, she set off to figure it out. With bright blue eyes and an engaging personality, she has a way of making you feel like you have known her your whole life in just a few minutes. One of the first people she sought out was Conway-Vietri and they became fast friends. She helped Richter and a group of other residents create the Elder Umbrella Series. They asked area experts to address the topics they were concerned about such as healthcare and housing. They even asked the police and fire departments to offer tips and suggestions on how to safely remain in their homes as they grow older. What began as an inter-denominational, faith-based group, has expanded and continues today. These Educational Forums are now offered through the senior center regularly, addressing serious issues such as health insurance counseling, caregiver support and elder law.

One important role the center is playing is well, just that, playing with everyone – teens, families and seniors – through intergenerational programs. Many of the town’s programs are open to all adults and some are held in partnership with the library, youth and teen center and are open to all participants.

The most popular annual intergenerational event is the summer picnic held at the Fort Getty pavilion. It is truly an island-wide effort, last year drawing more than 175 people. Open to all ages, local teens serve the meal which begins with clam chowder, includes lobster rolls, fresh tomatoes and basil from the Island’s community garden and ends with the classic Rhode Island staple coffee ice cream by the water in the summer sun.

Sounds like it’s great fun for all ages, which is by definition what it means to be age-friendly.