It’s the early afternoon on Monday, December 7, and Frank Sinatra’s voice is being piped through the sound system at the Bridgehampton Senior Center. The crooner is wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas” in song. Wreaths and ornaments decorate the room, but the mood of those in the room is noticeably bittersweet. This is the last meeting of the Sag Harbor chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), a not-for-profit organization aimed at helping improve the lives of people ages 50 and up. Around 19 members have gathered on Monday to commiserate on their years spent with the Sag Harbor AARP and to fete the holidays one last time together.
“We are dismantling for lack of attendance,” announced AARP president George Burnett, though the declaration wasn’t news to anyone in the room.
When the local organization was founded in 1965, few would have predicted that the Sag Harbor AARP would disband due to dwindling numbers. In the 1980s, the group boasted a membership roster of between 500 to 600 people, said Burnett, with a sizable African-American contingency. By the early 1990s, the local AARP had dropped to only 75 to 80 members, said Ted Stafford, a member of the board of directors. The group hosted a monthly bus ride to Atlantic City, added Stafford, and held several fundraisers. Today, 60 locals pay dues. However, fewer than 25 residents regularly attend the monthly meetings. The last fundraiser for the Sag Harbor AARP was held a few years ago and some board members have been forced to stay on the board of directors for several years because other members aren’t willing to take their place.
Yolanda Martino is the secretary of the Sag Harbor chapter and has been coming to meetings for 10 years. She sits at a round linoleum table near a Christmas tree lit with tiny lights and is sifting through the minutes from previous meetings in a manila folder. As secretary, Martino was in charge of booking guest speakers, like Dr. John Oppenheimer and members of the Southampton Town Police Department. With a dozen or so AARP members showing up for meetings, this task was becoming increasingly difficult.
“It was embarrassing when we didn’t have an audience,” remembered Martino.
“We found that we couldn’t have guests come from great distances,” noted Burnett during his speech.
The end of the Sag Harbor AARP was brought on by several different factors, reported members of the group. Al Martino, Yolanda’s husband, said in his 15 years of attending meetings he had seen people lose interest, pass away or move out of the area. His wife has a much different theory.
“A lot of seniors are working to supplement their income. They can’t come here in the middle of the day,” says Yolanda Martino, as her eyes swept across the open meeting area with sunlight pouring in through the floor to ceiling windows.
Yolanda worked at a school in the Bronx before moving to North Haven with her husband. Another, AARP member Vincent Starace bought a house in the area in 1983 and moved here permanently after retiring from the New York City Police Department. With the high cost of living on the East End, coupled with the taxes, others say it is too expensive to retire in Sag Harbor and many are shuttling off to homes in a warmer locale.
“People can’t afford to live here anymore,” pointed out Elena Loreto. “It is cheaper in Florida.” Al Martino corroborated this, saying he had seen several members move to the “Sunshine” State.
Yolanda Martino added the average age of a Sag Harbor AARP member ranged between 75 to 80-years-old, while the national AARP organization accepts the membership of citizens over 50 years of age. Retiring at this age is often out of reach for many people today, she noted.
“I retired at 58 … a lot of people can’t do that anymore,” she added.
After Burnett’s final speech, AARP members ate pasta and fried chicken at large round tables, noting the sadness they felt over the closing of the local chapter. Despite these melancholic feelings, the members still seemed to enjoy the company of their fellow AARP members. The men, dressed in pressed slacks and jackets, and the women, who donned festive holiday sweaters, served cake. While others danced around the room to Christmas jingles.
In one last order of business, the group agreed to spend their remaining money, $593.29, on gifts for the staff at the senior center and the rest will be donated to the Southampton Senior Services program. Stafford took the podium to close the last Sag Harbor AARP meeting.
“Some day maybe a new chapter will open. I make a motion to adjourn,” said Stafford. “It has been nice knowing you all.”