Joan Saunders of Mattituck, 88, knows where she’d be without her friends: at home, alone, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.
It had been that way since her husband — longtime North Fork restaurateur Cliff Saunders Jr. — died in 2002. A pet cat she named Fearless did little to fill her need for friendship.
One day last year, a friend encouraged her to try having lunch at the Southold Town Human Resource Center, which hosts social time for local seniors every weekday. That decision, she says, changed her life.
“This place is a gift from God,” Ms. Saunders says, as other seniors at her table nod in agreement. “This is where seniors are saved.”
For decades, the town’s senior center has been a focal point for the North Fork’s elderly community, offering them warm meals, help getting to doctor’s appointments and, most importantly, a chance to form new relationships.
“When they’re here they have a purpose,” says director Karen McLaughlin. “I think we all need a purpose. When you get up in the morning, you have people to go see.”
The senior center, a cozy room with an antique jukebox and walls decorated in St. Patrick’s Day greens and shamrocks, slowly fills up as Ms. Saunders chats with her friends.
“We’re here for the company,” says Alice Aydinian, an 86-year-old Laurel resident who started coming to the senior center with her husband before he died. “I came to be with people.”
Regina Orlowski, 87, says she looks forward to coming to the senior center every time and dreads when the building is closed on the weekends.
“They give us a reason to get out of the house,” she says. Those who don’t drive but want to come for lunch — like Ms. Saunders, Ms. Orlowski and Ms. Aydinian — are picked up each morning.
Despite misconceptions about the program, the senior center lunch is available to Southold Town residents over the age of 60, regardless of income. Ms. Saunders is appalled that more seniors don’t know about the program or choose not to try it, saying it opened up a “wonderful new world” for her.
“Look at the tables,” she says, motioning to a few empty seats nearby. “These should be full.”
The center is not a charity but a social setting to make seniors comfortable. On Halloween, the seniors even get dressed up in costumes, Ms. Saunders says.
“You never do grow up, really,” she says, smiling.
The Human Resource Center has more than a dozen full-time employees from cooks to social workers, as well as 12 part-timers. The staff is always accommodating, she adds, ferrying seniors to doctor’s appointments and taking them shopping.
“I can’t even remember all the good things they’ve done for me,” she says. “All the people here are wonderful.”
At noon on the dot, someone in the senior hall rings a bell. Before lunch, the dozens of seniors present rise and take off their hats for the Pledge of Allegiance and then break into a rendition of “God Bless America.”
Today’s meal? Stuffed flounder with lemon as an appetizer and seafood au gratin with vegetables served over rice.
“I can’t eat it all,” Ms. Aydinian admits, putting aside some leftovers to take home.
“I can!” Ms. Saunders says.
The lunch options are just as nutritious on other days, whether it’s crabcake, roasted potatoes and spinach or pot roast with a bean casserole.
Head chef Gary Ostroski, who owned the Coronet in Greenport for 31 years before joining the senior center staff, says the town tries to make the food as delicious as possible while staying within Suffolk County’s guidelines for nutrition, like having at least three helpings of vegetables or fruits in each meal.
“I try to cater to their tastes,” he says, noting older generations tend to like heartier foods like meatloaf.
Mr. Ostroski also has to make sure the meals can be scaled to feed all the seniors; last year, the town cooked about 11,500 lunches for its senior center, plus an additional 25,600 meals that were delivered to seniors at their homes.
Ms. Aydinian says the center’s lunch program has another unexpected benefit: It allows the seniors to reflect on their lives.
She says regulars at the center — friends she’s made — sometimes stop coming. They’ve moved away, she says, they’ve gone into the hospital and sometimes they’ve died.
Being surrounded by others who have experienced the same losses — like her friends, the widows at her table laughing in between bites of flounder — helps make it easier for her to find peace in her own life, she says.
“That’s just how it is,” Ms. Aydinian says. “People come and people go.”
“But you keep them up here,” Ms. Saunders adds, pointing to her head. “In your memories.”