Susan Ramsey can’t escape the gap between what used to exist here, and what doesn’t anymore. Gone is the cluster of activity, people coming and going, the buzz, the gaiety, the friendships made here. Gone.
The Natick Community-Senior Center closed March 12, and the facility is a solemn place now. An unwanted calm hovers over the empty chairs and tables.
Ramsey, the center’s director, misses the relationships that were made here, whether the senior citizens came to play cards, take an art class, exercise, watch a film, or just have lunch. There were dozens of activities offered. A place like this meant you could be 60 or 90 years old and still make new friends.
“Those connections have been fractured,” said Ramsey.
Putting them back together depends on the whims of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Ramsey and her staff have made it their mission to stay in touch with the community, letting those who used to come to the center know they haven’t been forgotten. “This is an anxious time for seniors,” she said.
Since the coronavirus made social gatherings off-limits, especially for people over 65, senior centers and advocates across the region have been working tirelessly to reach elders who may be hungry, ill, and isolated. The solution may be a yoga class over Zoom, a newsletter delivered by mail, a phone call, or a meal delivered to their doorstep. The centers remain a beacon at a time when many seniors may feel forgotten, left behind to get old on their own.
Before the pandemic, the Lawrence Senior Center provided a wide range of activities ranging from dancing to bingo to English as a second language classes. Now it is “food-centric,” said Martha Velez, head of the center and director of human services for the city.
“We’ve delivered 6,100 bags of food a month. We do 200 meals on wheels a day,” Velez said. “We’re just trying to help everyone get through this.”
For seniors in the 28-town Norfolk County area, Sheriff Jerry McDermott oversees the “Are You OK?” program. The service is free. Seniors only have to sign up to receive daily checkup calls. If they don’t answer, a designated relative, neighbor, or friend is contacted.
“We contacted a grandson of a woman who didn’t answer her phone,” said McDermott. “He said she should be home. We called the local police.”
The sheriff’s office, working with the police and Fallon Ambulance, saved the day. “The woman hadn’t had dinner and felt lightheaded,” McDermott said. “She took a bath but didn’t have the strength to get out of the tub.”
The “Are You OK?” program originally covered Quincy, but McDermott expanded it to the entire county. He said the program has made “22 saves,” mostly involving seniors who had fallen and broken a wrist or hand.
The Medway Senior Citizen Center (also known as Friends of the Elders) closed its doors March 16. “This was the seniors' meeting place,” said director Courtney Riley. “We’d have 75 to 100 here on any day. They’d have lunch here, or go on trips. They’d do crafts or join exercise groups.
"We had people here 95, 96 years old. I couldn’t keep up with some of them!” Riley said. "They’ve lived fascinating lives and they tell their stories.”
Since the pandemic began, that vitality has been missing, although in the summer the Medway center provided socially distanced outdoor lunch and Wednesday breakfast. Buses and a van are available to get residents to doctor appointments. Zoom, streaming, and newsletters have been a big help.
“The majority of our programs are online or Zoom,” said Heather Munroe, who as Wellesley’s director of senior services, oversees the Tolles Parsons Center. “Exercises, art exhibitions, yoga, and programs on the Cold War are on Zoom. We have a bus service for anyone who wants to go shopping.”
Senior centers everywhere are trying to move the needle. “We still have staff inside, but we’ve turned over events to Zoom,” said Randy Aylsworth, assistant director of the Callahan Senior Center in Framingham. For those seniors who are not tech savvy, he turns to the telephone.
“I want to constantly take care of people not up on technology,” Aylsworth said. “We don’t want to lose connection with them. My fear is losing people who aren’t on a computer or Zoom. We’ve made thousands of outreach calls.”
Like other centers, the Callahan also works with AARP to help seniors with their taxes, including holding one-on-one appointments if necessary.
The Natick Community-Senior Center sends a newsletter to all seniors in town, informing them of services and offering Zoom activities ranging from book groups to mindfulness meditation. This month, the center reopened with a few appointment-only programs and brought back its popular muscle-building class.
And then, there is the telephone.
“A lot of the seniors don’t have access to the Internet, so we call them to see how they’re doing,” Ramsey said.
At 79, Karen Oakley made full use of the center before the coronavirus arrived, strolling down the walking path, participating in indoor exercise sessions, and sampling educational programs. The pandemic has changed her life dramatically.
“I’ve been a very active person. But I’m not comfortable being in group sessions. I’m staying isolated as best as I can,” she said. “But isolation can add to other difficulties like depression and memory issues. I hope things don’t get worse. The winter’s going to be especially hard.”
The longtime Natick resident considers herself “still quite independent" and looks forward to returning to her regular routine. "I drove myself to the community center. The staff is terrific. I hope to get back.”
Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @lennymegs.