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Aging Series: Senior Centers, Once A Gathering Place For Elders, Struggle During COVID

For elders in big cities and small towns, senior centers offered a respite from home. The senior center was a place to go and talk with other people, take a class, exercise, and eat a meal.

            But socializing with other people in close contact is potentially deadly for people over 65, so senior centers have closed.

What’s been the impact? 

Beverly Shelton remembers how she felt when she heard last March that the city of Springfield was closing its senior centers because of the pandemic.

              “Sad,” said Shelton.

             The 71-year-old city resident said she visited the Raymond A. Jordan Senior Center two or three times a week.

               “I really miss this place,” said Shelton.

              For many seniors like Jo-Ann Ryan of Springfield, who lives alone, the closing of senior centers has left them feeling isolated.

               “It is hard,” said Ryan.  “You gotta stay positive because you can really down, you know."

              The Jordan Senior Center opened two years ago. Built in a clearing in a city park and surrounded by trees, the center has a large parking lot that has come in handy now that the building itself is closed.

              Krista Stott, Senior Program Coordinator with the city’s Department of Elder Affairs, said in an effort to keep seniors active, the center has staged drive-in games and made arts and crafts projects that can be picked up and done at home.

              “We are trying to hit every aspect we can whether it is drive-in stuff, take-home , or video stuff,” explained Stott.

While the drive-in events have been popular – a car parade in July had over 200 vehicles – Stott said attempts to bring seniors together remotely for things like exercise classes, line dancing, or just some conversation have had mixed results.

             “The Zoom has not be as successful because a lot of people don’t have access to the internet, or a computer, or know how to do that yet, so we are trying to figure out ways to work around that,” said Stott.

              The staff of the city’s Department of Elder Affairs, many of whom are working from home, make regular calls to seniors to see how they’re doing.

               Sandy Federico, Director of Elder Affairs, said the call list numbers almost 3,000 seniors.

                “When we see a change or decline emotionally, we will follow up stronger with calls,” said Federico.

                Early on in the pandemic, the city surveyed seniors and found many were afraid to go grocery shopping and had no one to do the shopping for them. So, Federico said the decision was made to have meals prepared and delivered to seniors.   Hundreds of free meals are now delivered daily.

               The meals consisting of breakfast and lunch have been “a tremendous life-saving endeavor,” according to Federico.

               “With the lunches we attach a card with an affirmation or wellness message or a joke to make them smile and let them know we still care and are here for (them),” said Federico.

                Because of the steps that have been taken to stop the spread of the virus, there is a worry about the impact of social isolation on seniors.

               “The parades and the other drive-in programs are an attempt on our part to at least see us, because some people don’t have the luxury of family or friends or neighbors to look out for them,” said Federico.  “So our connection is vital.”

               After each program at the center, there is a follow up by the Elder Affairs staff to see how it affected the participants.

                 “We’ll do a random sampling and ask ‘how did you feel before you got here and how do you feel now?’ explained Federico. “’I feel better’ is not good enough. We ask more questions, make them think and force them to express.” 

                Federico said it has been a challenge to confront the fear and feeling of helplessness many seniors say they’ve experienced during the pandemic. 

                “We may sound ridiculous at times being rah-rah cheerleaders, but those weeks drag into months and we’re still not open, so we have to work very hard at being resilient for the seniors,” said Federico. 

               Sitting in a car in the Jordan senior center parking lot playing a trivia game with about a dozen other seniors, also in cars, on a sunny fall morning, Lynn Hallowell said she appreciates what the elder affairs staff has done since the center closed.

              “These kind of things they do for us,” she said referring to the senior center staff, “I think they are doing it just as much for them, because it’s a skeleton crew here now and they miss all the activity, and the people and conversations.”

              As much as the activities and home delivered meals are appreciated, 82 year-old Esther Barbee said she looks forward to the day the senior center reopens.

             “Mingling with friends because I don’t see them anymore,” said Barbee. “That is number one. Number one.”

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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