The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way older folks exercise, enjoy themselves and even eat lunch.
That’s because senior centers everywhere have mobilized to better serve their members, who just happen to be the most vulnerable population during this health crisis.
“From our standpoint, we’ve always felt that we were a very important piece of the community, but I think now more people are going to realize the importance of our role,” Bristol Senior Center Director Patty Tomascak said this week.
Bristol Senior Center has remained open with a limited number of staff, rotating shifts at home and in the office.
“It’s worked out well to keep us safe and healthy so if one of us got sick we wouldn’t all get sick,” Tomascak explained. “We’ve been very busy.”
A weekly email blast goes out to about 1,500 of the center’s 6,000 members, the portion that has their email addresses registered with the office. A video also goes up on Facebook with a challenge for people to partake in from home. ‘A scavenger hunt in your own home’ was one recent event.
Staff are also making calls on a daily basis to members who frequent the center or others they know need a check-in.
“Those we’ve talked to all seem to be handling it very well,” Tomascak said. “We encourage them to stay home and it seems like they are. They’ve been calling each other, which is great. For people who don’t have family close by this can be a very lonely time. We’re trying to stay positive for them. They do miss this place.”
All programming and other services are cancelled for the time being.
“People are doing okay, feeling a little cooped up,” reported Rex Cone, director of the New Britain Senior Center. “They know it’s for their well-being, so they’re understanding of it.”
Congregate meals are a necessity for many older adults, who would typically go to their town’s senior center to eat lunch with their friends and maybe enjoy a fitness class or a movie showing while they’re there.
Centers across the region have switched to a grab-and-go lunch model, sending members home with meals for a few days or even the whole week.
Meals on Wheels has continued, with deliveries made to homebound seniors who can’t get out. Dial-a-Ride is also still operating, providing transportation to seniors and disabled residents in New Britain, Bristol and surrounding towns.
Senior center trips, usually wildly popular in the summertime, will probably not take place in summer 2020. Travel companies that work with senior organizations to facilitate excursions have postponed or cancelled all through June. Refunds are now being issued, since people signed up for day trips and multi-day vacations months in advance.
Staff at New Britain’s facility are filming videos of their fitness classes and posting them online so their usual participants – and maybe even a few new ones – can follow along at home.
Their greenhouse plant sale scheduled this May has been moved online in collaboration with New Britain Roots.
“We’re just taking as much precaution as we can,” Cone said. “We are trying to keep our seniors informed; if they have questions we pass along information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The Plainville Senior Center is bringing back a program that hasn’t existed for over 25 years: Party Lines.
A system of telephone conferencing originally designed for homebound seniors who couldn’t attend programming at the senior center, this has turned out to be just what the doctor ordered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We actually won a national award for it years and years ago – people really loved it,” Cohen said. “We’re excited to be starting it up again.”
Games of bingo, poetry readings and other events will take place over the telephone, from home, and people can call in to take part along with friends from their community.
“People used to tell us, this is wonderful, I can still have friends over even though I’m not feeling well enough to get out of bed,” Cohen remembered of Party Lines circa 1995. “Now it’s sort of the same thing again.”
Staff at the Newington Senior & Disabled Center are also harnessing their creativity to get seniors what they need. A volunteer grocery shopping program began in March and now virtual programming is becoming a reality.
“In the first couple of weeks of our closure we were really focused on taking care of basic needs and now we’ve branching out to things like virtual events,” director Dianne Stone said.
Lectures on everything from medical marijuana to exercise will soon be posted on the center’s webpage for seniors to watch. Newington’s is also one of the first two senior agencies in Connecticut to move its Aging Mastery program online. During a Zoom Webinar conference last week, over 50 senior centers from across the state discussed how to mitigate the impact of social isolation on older adults.
“When you talk to people you hear, ‘I’m ok, I’m bored and lonely, but I’m ok,’ Stone explained. “We continue to remind people in the community that older adults are especially isolated right now. Just the importance of knocking on the door to ask them how they’re doing cannot be overstated. Let them know they’re not alone, even in isolation.”
In good times and bad, senior centers have always been there for the eldest members of their home communities. Now they’re asking communities to be there for them too.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.