For many adults in their golden years, their local senior centers provide a place for socializing, learning and staying active.
So naturally, it’s been a difficult 10 months for many seniors who’ve been encouraged to not see friends in-person or be out and about, and instead remain homebound more than usual during the pandemic.
But the staff at the Oregon Area Senior Center have tried to adjust to meet new needs prompted by COVID-19, and continue to provide much-needed services and socialization to an already oft-isolated population.
“The senior center really altered the way we provided services, but many of our important services continued in a different form,” director Rachel Brickner told the Observer on Dec. 17. “We’re shifting the way we do things, but still doing them.”
Among the ways it has adapted is transitioning its traditional in-person meal programs to home delivery and drive-thru, and offering classes and programming both online and by phone as public health gathering restrictions were repeatedly changed and often tightened, Brickner said.
Its 40th anniversary last May also came and went with little fanfare, as opposed to a celebration held at the center, Brickner added.
Brickner said she and her staff have been doing the best they can to reduce isolation by reaching out to seniors with calls, and offering virtual-based programs, as well as programs by conference calls. They’ll be offering an online live concert in January.
“The virus has made many people, rightly so, much more isolated than they had previously been,” she said. “It’s not healthy for people. Isolation and loneliness can be like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day – that has been one of the most challenging features of trying to provide services since last March.”
A lost personal touch
Pre-pandemic, staff were used to most seniors coming to the center to eat every day, and home deliveries were fewer, but now all of the meals are delivered to people’s homes.
Before the pandemic, the delivery meal program relied heavily on senior volunteers to package and deliver meals, so when the virus came along, the center had to ask its volunteers who were mostly senior citizens adults to take time off from volunteering. That meant staff had to find a new group of volunteers to step in who were less vulnerable.
Brickner also said an additional delivery service route was added, bringing the total routes to four, and staff worked with the seniors receiving meals to develop contactless delivery. Prior to the pandemic, volunteers would knock on doors to see how the meal recipients were doing – a personal touch lost to contactless delivery, which Brickner said was quite a change for both recipients and delivery drivers.
Another meal-based service that evolved was the former My Meal My Way program at Ziggy’s Barbecue Smokehouse and Ice Cream Parlor. Before the pandemic, once a week seniors could sit-down for a donation-based meal at the restaurant.
Ziggy’s and the senior center worked to ensure that the program was still available during the pandemic, making it a drive-thru service where meals could be placed in seniors’ back seats or trunks.
“Making sure people had adequate food was a real focus for us,” Brickner said. “The whole transition of our food process was a huge project, and to not miss a meal or a day during that transition says a lot about the commitment of our volunteers and community to make sure the programs kept running.”
As the dining room remains empty now nearly a year after in-person services shuttered, volunteers use the extra space for packaging the delivery meals. The additional room provides the ability to social distance, which made Brickner feel okay about having seniors back volunteering.
“One of the biggest issues for seniors is isolation, so they appreciate that,” she said.
Senior center staff are still providing many of the same services – just with a few adjustments to their processes.
Case managers continue their work, though much more by phone now than previously, whereas before they were more likely to go to a client’s home, Brickner said.
Managers continue to work on housing issues, financial issues and helping victims of elder abuse – just doing it in a slightly different fashion than before, Brickner said.
“The staff have all had to get better at the tech required to do our jobs virtually,” Brickner said. “That transition has gone well. I’m proud of how well staff have worked from home and all the things they have had to do to be able to work from home.”
When the weather warms up, if indoor gatherings are still prohibited and the senior center is not allowed to bring groups in safely, the center will offer more programming outdoors than last year. Brickner said that change comes from having a better idea of how the virus spreads, so now she’s less concerned about people touching the same exercise gear. She feels if the seniors are spread out, they can safely do some classes she was not so sure of last spring and summer.
For some programs, after adapting to continue during the pandemic, attendance roughly stayed the same while for others. For other programs, numbers went down.
That is illustrated by the holiday meal mid-December, which usually draws 80-100 people for dinner – this year, 90 people went through the drive-thru at Ziggy’s. But the holiday play performed by staff at the center is usually its biggest and most popular annual event, Brickner said, and this year after transitioning to a “radio play” format performed over phone call, only attracted about half as many people as other years.
The center’s programming is sometimes more than just a way to keep seniors active and engaged, some programs are a way to raise money for the center, and that has been tough this past year.
“All our usual sources of revenue have been taken away by coronavirus,” Brickner said.
The last fundraiser it was able to hold was a pancake breakfast in January 2020.
Other annual fundraising events such as a summer concert series at Waterman Triangle Park, a brat bash and an ice cream social were canceled. The center’s gift shop has been mostly kept closed. Some classes such as Zumba which people would pay for before are free now that they’ve been transitioned onto Zoom.
However, donations from community members, including people’s stimulus checks, have helped bridge that gap, Brickner said.
“There are a lot of social fun things that we do that were just not able to be done this year, but we’ve tried to not give everything up,” she said. “We’ll keep following public health orders. Programming will change whether because of the weather or the vaccine. It’s a matter of getting through.”