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Senior centers let some flee heat

(ran ET edition of Tampa & State)

An elder affairs official wants longer operating hours for centers, but some say demand has not been high in the heat.

When the weather gets too hot, Dale Zakas, 66, likes to go to his local senior center because air conditioning is too expensive to use at home.

Zakas spends about eight hours a day at the Sunshine Center, 330 Fifth St. N in St. Petersburg, which is across the street from his home at Peterborough Apartments. He said he is on a fixed income so going to a place like the center or the public library is vital because it saves him money.

"Some people in my building pay up to $180 a month (for electricity), and I don't know how they do it," he said. "I don't like to stay home anyway. So I come here and play pool. It is very important for the air conditioning and entertainment."

Gema Hernandez, secretary of the state Department of Elder Affairs, was looking out for seniors like Zakas when she issued an alert for Florida earlier this week that encourages senior centers to keep their doors open during the heat wave until 4 or 5 p.m. She said she wanted the state's older residents to have a place to go to avoid the heat during peak hours.

"We have to do prevention," she said. "We want elders to understand that when there is hot weather, drink plenty of fluids. I want to do anything I can to prevent (harm). I thought this was appropriate and proactive."

Jay Morgan, supervisor of the Sunshine Center, said it is open until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 4 p.m. Sundays. Morgan said the center did not have to change its hours and has not received complaints regarding the heat.

"We are looking at the situation and seeing if there is a need," he said. "We have polled the regular participants. But the place cleans out by 4 p.m. We are not seeing a need."

The Senior Helpline has not been receiving a lot of heat-related calls this summer, said Maria Escobales, senior resource coordinator. Escobales said she does not know why, but she believes that Florida residents are used to the heat and know when to stay inside.

Sandra Howard, director of the Elfers Multipurpose Senior Center, 4136 Barker St., said the best course of action is increasing awareness. Howard said the center has not been asked to stay open past 4:30 p.m. She said she has noticed an increase in the number of people attending the center in Pasco County. But that is because of the increase in programs offered, she said.

"The biggest issue is that we are dealing with seniors who don't drive after dark," she said.

Mario Greneda, 68, goes to the Sunshine Center because of the activities it offers and not for the air conditioning. Greneda said it is a family atmosphere and he has been going there since 1982.

"It is a second home," he said. "If we didn't have this place, where would seniors go?"