Senior Centers stay vigilant with doors closed

Though visitors are stuck at home, organizations try to adjust to serve community

Pepperell Senior Center Director Susan McCarthy speaking with a local resident outside the senior Center at a recent Christmas in July event.
Pepperell Senior Center Director Susan McCarthy speaking with a local resident outside the senior Center at a recent Christmas in July event.

PEPPERELL – Despite the days blending together in a dour time loop as the coronavirus pandemic lurches on, some people are trying their hardest to perk-up spirits of senior citizens. Whether it’s through bringing Christmas to July or simply making phone calls, local senior centers are still putting in work despite not being able to welcome people in.

Pepperell’s senior center, also known as the Albert Harris Center, is reopening to the public on Aug. 3 in a limited capacity with visitors only allowed by appointment or for an activity while wearing a mask. Despite closing its doors to the public on March 13, Center Director Susan McCarthy said she and her staff have been continuously working to provide services to citizens stuck at home over the last four months. These services include everything from classes over Zoom to its Christmas in July event last Friday to McCarthy asking residents to send her positive messages over email and she picks a resident to send a “Dr. Fauci Fun Kit,” which is a gift basket consisting of Corona beers, puzzles and other items in the kit named after the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director who has been leading the national response to the coronavirus.

“We’ve been reaching out as much as we can,” McCarthy added. “Beforehand, people were very sad because they won’t be able to just come here. Christmas in July was such a great idea and we did not expect so many people to come, but so many people missed each other. A lot of people wished just to be back here.”

Marilyn Largey, director of Shirley’s Council on Aging, said that town’s senior center also reopened with conditions under Phase Three of Massachusetts’ reopening plan. The center’s new rules include following social distancing and only coming in after pre-registering for programs. Largey said staffers have been sanitizing the building to prevent any potential spread of the virus and been going through training based on state procedure. As far as programming, Largey added that the center hasn’t done many curbside or remote programs over the last four months because “clientele was not interested.” But that doesn’t mean the center hasn’t been staying in touch with others.

“We spent the first six weeks on the phone calling residents age 60 and older asking about their needs,” Largey said. “When it comes to the workload involving social services, the effort has increased. In the beginning, we were going through the change of the pandemic and that was difficult. Now we’re on the right track.”

Many centers have acknowledged the struggle in adjusting to shuttered doors and not having people interacting on a daily basis. Debi Siriani, Chelmsford’s director of human services, pointed out financial impacts of closing its senior center to the public. These impacts included laying-off a nighttime custodian and van drivers delivering meals in May, among others things.

“We’ll definitely see the financial results of this for years to come,” Siriani added. “Our programs are funded by grants, so we rely on revenue to pay our staff.”

Karin Dynice-Swanfeldt, executive director of the Ayer Council on Aging, noted the struggle in adjusting its programming that was already limited due to the small space the council occupies. She noted how that lack of space makes it difficult for the council to restart programs while enforcing social distancing. This struggle, amongst others inflicted by the pandemic, has been a weight on council staff.

“Staff morale is crucial,” Dynice-Swanfeldt explained. “Trying to keep things going has been difficult but we can’t express that to our client base, whose reactions have been depression over our closure or ‘I’m coming down anyway.’ It’s one extreme or the other. These people are isolated and this was their home away from home.”

Bethany Loveless, executive director of the Dracut Council on Aging, also commented on the feeling of isolation for its seniors. The town’s senior center has been closed since mid-March, but Loveless and the council is still in touch with the senior community in town by taping exercises to be broadcast on cable TV and establishing a conference call line for seniors to talk with each other at certain times of the day. That conference line is a crucial element of the council’s outreach as Loveless noted the need for seniors to connect with one another.

“Each senior takes this situation differently depending on their family support or friends they have,” she explained. “When they were under the stay-at-home order, that was literally solitary confinement.

Still, senior centers are trying their damndest to keep programs like meal delivery going. In fact, Townsend Senior Center Director Karin Canfield Moore said the center’s homemade drive-up meal program, which the center has been holding on Thursdays, has been spirit-lifting for seniors and staffers.

“When we had our first drive-up meal program, I had this helmet while delivering meals and just seeing people I haven’t seen since March smile has been so worth it,” she said. “Having no people in our building here is just so weird.”

As for the reopening of other senior centers, there is still a sense of uncertainty in the air. But senior center staffers, like Fitchburg Senior Center Executive Director Joan Goodwin, are staying focused on reaching out to the community to ensure its seniors remain engaged.

“Reopening remains to be seen, but following state guidelines is the best thing you can do,” she said. “My most important job is to get out and help.”