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Sidelined senior centers

Pandemic closures leave the elderly without important services


Sidelined senior centers

When the first case of COVID-19 hit Austin, Texas, in mid-March, Meals on Wheels of Central Texas closed the 15 senior recreation and activity centers it operated. About half of the centers’ 1,600 clients live below the poverty line, according to program coordinator Sarah McKenna. Many of them come in for warmth in the winter and air conditioning in the hot Texas summers.

Since the shutdowns, McKenna’s team has made weekly calls to clients and provided meals they can pick up. They also distributed packets with coloring pages, word searches, exercise activities, and flyers for virtual Bingo and trivia. They still hope to reopen but don’t know when that will happen.

Across the country, more than 1 million older adults receive food and other resources through similar senior centers. Some centers are trying to maintain those crucial services during shutdowns but encountering numerous difficulties in doing so.

About 9 percent of Americans ages 65 and up fall below the poverty line, according to the Congressional Research Service. Millions more hover just above it. The federal supplemental poverty measure, which also considers noncash benefits, shows a 14 percent poverty rate for seniors. Most live on a fixed income from Social Security payments, and many also struggle to pay large amounts of educational or medical debt.

The nation’s nearly 11,000 senior centers provide meals, activities, social interaction, and help applying for food stamps or Medicare. Many centers connect clients with work or volunteer opportunities and financial classes. Most are nonprofits that receive state and federal funding, along with donations and volunteer hours.

But this spring, the pandemic stopped in-person programs, and senior centers adapted with varying levels of success. Several New York facilities offered virtual classes and open chats during lunch time.

“Remote doesn’t seem to work for older adults with cognitive problems,” said Robin Barone, board president of the Oxbow Senior Independence Program (OSIP) in Newbury, Vt. That center experimented with virtual events, but only three or four clients participated, often needing technology help from a caregiver, so the OSIP board discontinued the programs. With no idea when it can resume normal operations, the board decided to close the senior center permanently after more than 30 years.

In New York City, the pandemic shut down 287 senior centers and affiliated sites that served lunch to about 30,000 elderly people. Some city council members want them to reopen, but so far, Mayor Bill de Blasio has refused. When they do reopen, the centers will face increased expenses such as for upgrading ventilation, as well as increased demand from seniors who have become food insecure. During the pandemic, 70,000 seniors have received food through the city’s emergency food program.

In August, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gave permission for senior centers to reopen the next month. But at the end of October, Belmont County Senior Services Director Dwayne Pielech said the requirements for reopening—including testing the whole department for COVID-19 every two weeks and proving clients who tested positive did not get the virus at the senior center—may be cost prohibitive.

Many older Americans feel the absence of community the centers provided. In Austin, Meals on Wheels’ Sarah McKenna said her clients have told her they miss in-person interactions and seeing their friends: “The main goals of our program [are] to help reduce social isolation and bring seniors together.”

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.



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