January 1, 1984.

That’s when Mary-Kate Gill, director of elder services, and Lisa Labonte, director of senior nutrition services, began working together at New Opportunities, a social service agency headquartered in Waterbury that serves 27 Connecticut towns.

They share an easy laugh, a natural warmth and sage reflectiveness born of years sustaining people in the later chapters of their lives.

They ticked off the changes and challenges: Medical advances mean more people are living longer, but many are living with dementia. It’s not uncommon to see two generations or even three—all in the same family—that are eligible for services.

“And 60 today is not the same as it was 35-40 years ago,” Labonte mused. “Younger seniors are staying more active than they used to. Or they’re working. Or they’re taking care of grandchildren.”

“And yet,” Gill added, “state and federal funds have declined over the last 10-15 years. People are staying at home longer and community agencies like ours are expected to help them remain at home.”

New Opportunities has creatively risen to the challenges facing older people, led by this dauntless duo.

They started a housekeeping program so frail older people could stay at home, another program that assists older people in applying for benefi and services, and another that provides pet food for their clients’ pets—which they began when they realized that nutritionally at-risk people were sharing their own meals with their hungry pets.

Their innovative restaurant program provides more than 1,500 older people with a debit card that can be used at participating local restaurants to obtain low-cost meals developed in consultation with the New Opportunities dietitian. During the recession, the program may even have helped some restaurants stay in business.

Over the years, Connecticut Community Foundation—through its East Hill Woods Fund—has extended a helping hand to older people through New Opportunities, and 2017 was no different.

With a grant from the Foundation to configure and equip a food truck, New Opportunities will make it easier for older people with transportation challenges to get affordable meals at their doorsteps. The truck will travel among senior housing complexes in Waterbury, serving nearly 60 people per day. In an emergency such as a power failure at a senior housing building, the truck could also be deployed.

And, at senior centers in Woodbury and Southbury, mealtime attendance has jumped ever since New Opportunities enlisted chefs to prepare creative meals onsite. Now, smells of fresh baked bread waft through the dining rooms, and older people are guaranteed nutritious meals, subsidized by Foundation grant funds, that taste great—with the ambiance of home.

“A lot of older people are isolated,” said Labonte. “But [with chefs on-site], they started sitting down much earlier to meals—just to sit and talk.”

The meals are healthier, too, not “frozen meals loaded with sodium” that Gill said are too often the norm.

All this is in addition to a range of programs funded by Connecticut Community Foundation and coordinated by New Opportunities to promote fitness, social connection, education and nutrition for 1,200 Waterbury older adults at community and senior centers throughout the city. From guitar lessons to Zumba to memoir writing to classes on using Uber, Skype and online banking, barriers to independence and social connectedness are falling away.

Thirty-four years of working together has gotten Labonte and Gill— and older people throughout Greater Waterbury—very far indeed.

Photo: Zumba is among many classes for older adults that are coordinated by New Opportunities at the Hispanic Coalition of Greater Waterbury. Photo by Jake Koteen Photography.

View photos of Zumba class