Just before St. Patrick’s Day, the world came tumbling down, or so it seemed, to those of us who work at the Oregon Area Senior Center.

We canceled events, classes and appointments. Face-to-face dining was halted. Volunteers were told to shelter in place. Staff created schedules that would allow for as little in-person contact with each other as possible.

Three months have gone by since everything changed. It is time to catch our breaths, reflect on where we have been and imagine where we might be going – although this virus is a bit of a shape-shifter and leaves me with the unsteady feeling of walking in deep sand.

Even as we were closing down much of the life of the Center in mid-March, we were ramping up other services, many of which focused on food.

We helped people get connected to a touchless grocery shopping service and food pantry supplies, and the center delivered many more meals than usual. We partnered with the county and with local restaurant Ziggy’s to create a carry out lunch program that offers donation-based meals twice weekly, which keeps everyone safely in their cars and benefits a local restaurant.

We made wellness calls and safety calls and check-in calls and figured out how to connect people with what they needed when the usual resources were no longer available to them. Some of our exercise classes, like Zumba Gold, transformed into a class held twice weekly on Zoom, taught from the instructor’s home.

We have certainly seen an outpouring of generosity from the community in the last few months.

People reached out to us to offer their time and talents. Some replaced older adult volunteers in the meal program (packaging meals or delivering them). Some made and donated dozens and dozens of cloth face masks.

Many generous people donated money to the Oregon Area Council on Aging’s Seniors Helping Seniors Fund. The council is a non-profit organization which supports the mission of the senior center. The Seniors Helping Seniors Fund is set up to provide direct financial support to seniors in need, in accordance with policies set up and approved by the council.

Some people donated restaurant gift cards to be distributed to seniors, generously supporting local restaurants while treating older adults to carry out meals.

Still others made more general donations, which are greatly appreciated, as well. Without being able to hold the usual annual fund raisers or to earn money from gift shop sales, the council’s revenues will be drastically different this year. With the help of donations, the Council on Aging remains able to support the center’s mission.

The senior center staff has been busier than ever, with everyone taking on new tasks and learning new skills. I am proud of the “We can do this” attitude the staff members adopted as they cheerfully took on new responsibilities and roles and made sure that people had what they needed to stay safe in their homes. Staff who had hardly set foot in the kitchen before could now probably run the nutrition program if necessary.

We have adapted and adjusted the center to the current “normal,” and now we try to plan for what lies ahead. We try to envision the future, which is dependent largely on unpredictable variables.

The center has begun to make appointments to loan out items from our medical equipment loan closet again and to take items back from people who are ready to return them.

The Adult Day Program (which suspended operations in mid-March) is open again, with a handful of participants at a time, all maintaining safe social distancing. We plan to expand the number of participants in July while continuing all of our safety practices.

Some of our former kitchen volunteers and meal delivery drivers have returned, and we hope to start adding volunteer receptionists in a few weeks – behind a newly constructed Plexiglas barrier.

We have new cleaning policies in place, as well as policies about taking people’s temperatures before they enter the building and about face coverings and what parts of the building will be accessible to the public. All of those were relatively easy to prepare.

What isn’t easy as we look ahead is figuring out how to restore the heart of the center. Loneliness kills people, and this virus is certainly the biggest isolator we have encountered.

The center served as a place for people to connect and to contribute, to learn and to laugh, to celebrate and to smile. It is our task to figure out how to create that in a world that isn’t able to safely come together physically. It is our task to create that for people who may not even own a cell phone, not to mention a computer.

The challenges ahead must be acknowledged and addressed, because one thing is clear as we move forward onto the shifting sands of the future landscape – there is no going back.

We cannot go back. The risk is too great. We must adapt, we must adjust and we must find new paths forward.

Rachel Brickner is the director of the Oregon Area Senior Center. She can be contacted at rbrickner@vil.oregon.wi.us or 835-5801.