By Susan E. Campbell
The high-risk elderly population has faced greater challenges than most other demographic groups during the coronavirus pandemic. But although their doors are temporarily closed, local senior citizens centers have made sure their members stay safe through outreach and by shifting programs into the digital realm.
As the staff of the Greater Glens Falls Senior Center moved work to their homes, they made calls to the 1,100 members to assess needs, according to Executive Director Kim Bren. In some cases, a senior services specialist was called in to arrange rides, although with social distancing requirement the center’s 12-person van could not transport more than one senior at a time.
“Many members who didn’t know exactly what we do are very appreciative and will be more active as we slowly get back to normal,” said Bren. “Staff has learned that talking to the members personally lets them hear different sides and opinions.”
Saratoga Senior Center also did one-on-one phone calls to nearly 2,000 seniors who were either active members or who had recently not renewed memberships, according to Lois Celeste, executive director.
“Our first step was reassurance calls, then needs assessment,” Celeste said. “This resulted in a list of several hundred we have been calling daily.” There followed a second assessment call to anyone for whom the center had information and later, a third, she said.
Celeste had been running out of space at the center, where she has been for the past 11 years, as demand for programs and services rose before the virus drove everyone to self-quarantine.
“But that flipped on a dime when we learned we needed to shut down one of the area’s busiest senior centers right away,” she said.
Early on, Moreau Community Center organized the delivery of face masks and hand sanitizer and stayed in touch with its base of active seniors, according to Executive director Donna Nichols.
“We are a community center and seniors are a part of our commitment,” Nichols said. “We didn’t close but both youth services and senior services were suspended.”
As a result, Nichols said she had to lay off Moreau’s preschool director and senior director. Like her peers, she applied for and received a federal PPP loan.
Members around the community have missed the social activities and association centers provide them. Some already have “Zoom fatigue,” Celeste said.
“They want to come back,” Nichols said. “But all in good time as we try to figure out how to reintroduce them safely.”
“Socialization is critical for seniors,” said Celeste. “They are isolated anyway, having lost a partner or their eyesight or their mobility … But our message is, stay home and stay safe.”
When interviewed, half of the seniors around Saratoga County who responded told Celeste that they wanted to come back into the center, but many were unsure.
All of the directors have the governmental green light to open their doors on a partial or trial basis and they are doing so according to CDC protocols and with a high degree of caution.
“The staff is coming in one or two at a time to conduct activities, but it will be slow getting back to normal,” said Bren. “We want our members to feel safe while enjoying themselves, but if they don’t feel ready to come in for crafts, for example, they can still participate virtually.”
Moving activities to online chat sites has been successful. Anyone who needs help getting set up on apps are getting the needed training.
Celeste has done ongoing technology assessments and Nichols said her staff is using the internet to “help seniors stay smart and healthy in this unprecedented time.”
“Our outreach is about gentle education, such as talking about using masks,” said Nichols. “We have a very active Facebook page and are posting anything from public health information to town of Moreau services to stay connected.”
Bren said classes and events range from virtual exercises class to a book club and online cooking class.
Saratoga Senior Center typically brings in Skidmore seniors over the summer to assist with educational programs, and this summer is no different. They just conduct their classes virtually, Celeste said.
Most sources of funding for area senior centers have “virtually gone away,” said Celeste. “We are not sitting pretty, but we are okay,” said Nichols. “People are generous. And our thrift store, which has an income stream, reopened July 6.”
Bren said much of their funding comes from the city of Glens Falls and Warren County Office for the Aging. She has taken advantage of her time at home to research different grants, and has secured financial support from the Tri-County United Way, the Charlie Woods Foundation, and a Stewart’s Foundation fund dedicated to nonprofit organizations affected by COVID-19.
Fundraisers for community and senior centers are planned throughout the summer and fall. To learn more, visit gfseniors.com, saratogaseniorcenter.org, and moreaucommunitycenter.org.
By Susan E. Campbell