Senior center cookie exchange

From left, Fitchburg Senior Center intern Eric Miller, director Jill McHone, volunteer program manager Mandi Miller, social worker Amy Jordan and assistant director David Hill welcome another vehicle to their drive-thru “cookie exchange.”

The Fitchburg Senior Center is eyeing reopening its building to the public later this spring.

But staff will use a staggered approach, senior center director Jill McHone told the Star, which will span into June with no definitive completion date.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has permanently reshaped how the center will provide patrons programming and resources, McHone. What she and staff envision are hybrid classes with both in-person and Zoom options, an expanded meal program that’s currently “desperate for drivers” and partnerships with other area senior centers, she said.

So as the center aims to start the reopening process later in April, McHone said, patrons will see gradually increased accessibility to services. But that timing is contingent upon Public Health Madison and Dane County restrictions, as well as the rate at which seniors are vaccinated.

Of the 1,765,007 Wisconsinites who have received a vaccine, 75% of those are over the age of 65 as of Wednesday, March 31, according to data from the state Department of Health Services. Those numbers are promising, McHone said, but she’s learned to practice caution with how COVID-19 cases have risen and fallen in waves over the past year.

Right now, the senior center continues to operate in an appointment-only capacity, McHone said. Though closed to outside visitors, staff rotate shifts in the center’s office. Patrons may also meet with social workers when necessary.

In April, the center is looking at welcoming a couple of small groups back for activities with social distancing and mask-wearing, per county guidelines, she said.

“We can require people to sign up,” McHone said, adding that center staff will need to handle the flow of traffic in a way that allows for regular sanitization measures.

Then in May, the center would bring back more programming, including some of its exercise groups and book clubs.

“It’s going to be a slow rollout,” McHone said, estimating the center would be back at full capacity sometime in June with current case and immunization trends.

Even with reopening, the pandemic has permanently altered how the center offers patrons access to its services, resources and programming, she said.

For example, while volunteer drivers delivered 30-40 meals pre-pandemic, McHone said that number has increased to around 50-55 a day.

“That forced us to have six routes,” she said. “There were people who should have been on meals prior. It was the recognition that food insecurity was an issue.”

More food deliveries means a need for more drivers, McHone said, so the senior center is actively looking for applicants to fill those openings.

Another way the senior center plans to improve its accessibility is through hybrid classes, and potential partnerships with area senior centers for program offerings.

“We are looking at offering duel in-person and Zoom courses,” McHone said.

For more information about becoming a driver for the Fitchburg Senior Center’s meal home delivery program, contact volunteer Manager and Nutrition Site Coordinator Mandi Miller at mandi.miller@fitchburgwi.gov or 270-4293.

Email Emilie Heidemann at emilie.heidemann@wcinet.com or follow her on Twitter at @HeidemannEmilie.

Emilie Heidemann joined Unified Newspaper Group in 2018, where she serves as the community and business editor for four publications, as well as a quarterly magazine. Emilie covers the Village of Oregon and Fitchburg community beat.