Senior centers’ pandemic challenge: Keeping seniors engaged and active | Richmond & Hopkinton
Developing healthy connections remains at the heart of the work at the three Chariho region senior centers, pandemic or not. But now, at the beginning of the second winter of the coronavirus pandemic, with a new variant looming, keeping those connections has become all the more crucial.
“Isolation is a huge factor,” said Michelle Vekakis, the director of the Charlestown Senior Center, in a phone interview a week before Christmas when she discussed the impact of the pandemic on the center and its roughly 380 members. “There is a greater need than ever to keep to keep folks active and engaged.”
While keeping their eyes on the most recent omicron variant, Vekakis said, she and center employees will continue to offer in-house dining services for luncheons five days a week along with a number of activities and programs for their members. Unless the new variant requires updates.
“We’re constantly changing the way we do things,” she explained. “We want to continue offering whatever we can but we want to keep folks safe. The most important thing is to let folks know they are being cared for.”
Back in the thick of the pandemic, she said, the center offered “one-hundred percent curbside pick-ups” for meals, but began to offer in-house lunch in July.
They also offered virtual fitness classes, she said, until they could move classes like yoga, Tai Chi and Zumba back safely inside … or even outside.
“We offer something called ‘Yoga on the Move,'” Vekakis said, a program that incorporates the whole of Ninigret Park and involves walking and stepping.
“We want folks to know we are here,” she said. “We want them to reach out to us.”
Vekakis said visitors to the center are not required to be residents of Charlestown to attend the classes and programs. People who like to play Scrabble or cribbage or bridge or Mah Jong come from around the region, she said.
“In fact,” she added with a chuckle, “we have a group we call ‘Center Hoppers’ and we love them. They travel from center to center depending on the games they play.”
Vekakis said the center sees about 350 to 380 people on a regular basis and also helps facilitate the Meals on Wheels Program, which delivers meals to people in the region.
Meghan Grady, executive director of the Providence-based Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island, said the organization delivered roughly 4,000 meals a day statewide during the height of the pandemic.
“Our mission is to meet the nutritional and other special needs of older adults and other eligible populations in order to help them maintain their independent lifestyles,” Grady said during a phone interview.
Meals on Wheels delivers about 34 meals five days a week in Charlestown, she said, noting that it’s not only food being delivered.
“We not only deliver yummy meals,” she said, “we offer a chance for socialization and it’s a way to have a safety check.”
“In the height of the pandemic,” she said, “sometimes the person delivering the meal would be the only person they’d see. It helped them feel safe.”
“The delivery people were heroes of the pandemic,” Grady said, “especially for the homebound … they are always so grateful.”
Grady said she and Vekakis keep in close contact and make every effort to be aware of people in need in the South County towns and villages.
“We also welcome volunteers,” said Grady, who directs interested people to the website (https://www.rimeals.org) if they are interested in helping out.
At the Richmond Senior Center, located on the second floor of the police station, Chairman Dennis McGinity said things are “getting back to normal,” but certainly not back to full pre-pandemic programming.
“We lost so many members over the last year. We don’t want to put people at risk, especially now with this new variant,” said McGinity, who writes a newsletter for members every month for his members and stresses the importance of sharing information.
“I try to give members as much information as possible,” he said, “and I answer a lot of questions.”
Although the center held its annual holiday gathering in mid-December, he said, and it was “nice to get back together to talk and see people we haven’t seen in a long time,” he is becoming more reluctant now with the increase of COVID cases now being reported.
As with the Charlestown Senior Center, people need not be residents of the town to participate in activities at the center, he added.
“Just fifty or older,” he said. “I have a member in Florida, some snowbirds in Arizona and some who live in Exeter, West Greenwich and even Warwick.”
“Our goal in the Town of Richmond is to get a community senior center one day,” he added. “I know it’s a huge expense, but it would be good to be on a flat level so people don’t have to climb stairs.”
“We have such terrific people,” he added. “We do the best with what we’ve got.”
Like the other senior centers, Richmond works with Meghan Grady at Meals on Wheels and serves as a drop-off center. Roughly 25 people are currently being served.
At the Hopkinton Senior Center, Director Mary Sawyer also fields telephone calls, keeps in touch with other senior centers and the Rhode Island Department of Elderly Affairs, and helps people connect with the agencies best suited to their needs. They also offer a program called “Senior Health Check” on the first Thursday of each month.
During the height of the pandemic, she said, in addition to assisting with vaccination programs, “we spoke to a lot of people and spent a lot of time on the phone.”
“We used to be a meal site,” said Sawyer, but when numbers dwindled and there weren’t enough seniors requesting daily meals, they altered their approach and now offer lunch to go once a week in a program called “Take-Out Thursdays.”
Area restaurants like Lucky House, Main Street Pizza and Pete’s Grocery have been “just wonderful,” she said, stressing that the center also maintains a relationship with Meals on Wheels.
Sawyer said the Hopkinton center is a less “traditional” senior center because of the size of its membership, and serves as more of a resource center that offers plenty of recreational programs. The center offers Bingo, classes in Tai Chi and holds a monthly pot luck. There are also two to three field trips and other “special activities.”
Throughout the pandemic, she added, she heard about one need more than any other, and it’s a need that remains acute.
“Transportation,” said Sawyer. “People need to find ways to get to the hospital and to doctors’ appointments.”
There is good news on that front, she added.
“I’ve been talking to the RIDOT coordinator about busing,” said Sawyer. “I am excited about that.”