Our Island senior centers are really happening places. Like schools and libraries, they draw countless locals in for gatherings of every kind. There’s nothing staid or old-fashioned about them, or the wide-ranging programs and services they offer. From West Tisbury to Edgartown, Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven, the centers are spacious and pleasant, as warm and welcoming as the staffers. These professionals are always ready and well-prepared to serve their older clients in myriad ways, from helping solve problems to organizing creative classes, group activities, special events, and outings.
In normal times the centers are open every weekday, buzzing with people and activity. Staff members stay busy reaching out to shut-ins, or consulting with seniors on Social Security, health insurance, or other issues, or connecting them with other Island agencies.
But as the Island shuts down in hopes of stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus, residents over age 60 are heeding the warning to minimize contact and stay home. Senior centers have followed official guidelines, and changed routines accordingly.
All programming, lunch gatherings, and special events have been suspended. Doors are locked, drop-ins prohibited, and in-person appointments put on hold. But even with these dramatic changes, and though they must miss weekly exercise and yoga, discussions, classes, luncheons, bridge games, play reading, and informal socializing, the Vineyard’s over-60 crowd can count on their senior centers to meet needs and respond to requests, providing a reassuring safety net, especially for these neighbors considered most vulnerable.
Staff are working from home or rotating shifts in the building, but all stay available by phone, and pledge to remain accessible to clients even when not physically in the office.
With the Oak Bluffs Senior Center shuttered, director Rose Cogliano is busy as ever. Instead of meeting with clients, she is on the phone, helping clients with concerns from Social Security questions to fuel assistance signups.
“People want personal interaction. People still call, and I respond,” she said. The center’s outreach coordinator is contacting seniors to see what is needed. “People want to reach out and talk, and we’re here,” Cogliano promised.
The building gets heavy use from senior center activity and community groups, including the NAACP, bridge clubs, and 12-step programs. Cogliano said having to cancel so many gatherings is difficult for all.
“It’s impacted the community, but it’s a necessary impact for everyone’s safety,” she said.
“It’s a great loss for us not to be able to provide our life-enriching programs and services face-to-face, but we’re not able to because of the pandemic,” said Cogliano. “But we will continue our telephone outreach and response to requests. People shouldn’t hesitate to call the center if they have questions, problems, anxiety!”
“Be Calm and Wash Your Hands!” is the center’s slogan, she said.
Like those contacted at all four centers, Cogliano had a grateful shout-out for other town departments for assistance and support in helping them meet the needs of senior clients.
Cogliano was especially sorry the center had to cancel its St. Patrick’s Day party, featuring bangers and mash.
“But we’ll do this all again,” she said with determined optimism. “It’s just for now.”
The Edgartown Council on Aging’s chef Diane Wall normally prepares a communal luncheon for up to 70 seniors, two days a week.
“It’s a great opportunity to socialize, and for staff to identify people who might benefit from our services,” said Meris Keating, Director of Senior Services.
But with the center shut and regular visitors isolated at home, staff are working to make sure those who count on the meals will not go without.
Staff members head out once a week to deliver containers of frozen homemade soups to clients, to cover three meals. They also bring surplus food items to those who face food insecurity. Deliveries are left outside the door to avoid contact.
“It’s difficult not to give someone a reassuring chat or a hug,” said Keating. “But we’ll give as much support as we can over the phone.”
Keating said in this difficult time, all five center staff are pitching in to do whatever is needed, “and we’re all wearing different hats.”
Keating and her colleagues are remaining vigilant, knowing that stress and isolation can take a toll. Families in which one member is the caregiver are especially at risk. She said the staffers are working to make sure all clients have basic needs like food and shelter met, and that they will be connected to other types of services if the need arises.
For those who wish to help, Keating had a suggestion: “If you’re concerned about someone, just reach out to call them. You don’t have to formally volunteer. Just be a good neighbor.”
Up-Island Council on Aging
“When things go awry, you look for an opportunity underlying it,” said Tanya Larsen, assistant director at the Up-Island Council on Aging in West Tisbury.
She explained that having to close and cancel activities has given staff a chance to begin going through street listings, and identify new potential clients. They also are calling all those residents already known to the center to explore any needs, beginning with the oldest, shut-ins, and those at risk.
“We want to make sure people know we’re here,” said Larsen. “Our goal is to reach out to everyone. It’s an opportunity to do an extensive level of outreach.”
Staffers are also willing to pick up medications or other necessities, and drop them at homes. “These are things we normally do, but it’s increased because people don’t want to go out,” said Larsen.
The center will hold its regular food distribution program on March 27, prebagging and labeling grocery orders for registered clients and arranging them for safe pickup.
“We have to keep thinking about basic needs,” she said.
While other staff were engaged in outreach and serving emergency needs for isolated seniors, director Joyce Albertine continued her ongoing projects on the telephone, assisting clients with health insurance, Social Security, and any related challenges.
“Those that need food, we make sure they get food,” promised Joyce Stiles-Tucker, director at the Tisbury Senior Center. The usually busy facility was quiet last week, while Stiles-Tucker and one other staffer manned the telephones.
Stiles-Tucker said staff has been reaching out with phone calls to regular clients to make sure they are staying well and safe, and to offer help. She said many regulars are self-sufficient, but many others are shut in or need various assistance. And now that even active, healthy seniors are heeding the directive to stay home, there are more over-60s than ever who may need a helping hand.
The center has volunteers available to shop for food, medications, or any other necessity. Orders will be dropped outside the client’s door to avoid possible contagion.
Activity director Sandra Whitworth noted how quiet the center is, so unlike it usually is as people flock through the doors for programs, social events, and consultations.
“I’m looking forward to the resumption of our usual activities, with a few new ideas in the works too,” said Whitworth. “And most of all I’m looking forward to seeing everyone back when we’re all finished with this virus interruption.”
M.V. Center for Living
Leslie Clapp at the M.V. Center for Living said they plan to get some programming up and running using the Zoom online platform. They’re open to their clients trying online offerings while the pandemic means everyone stays home. To find out more about the Zoom music and trivia programs planned, call Mary Holmes at 508-560-6012 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Leslie Clapp can be reached at 508-783-3735 or by email at email@example.com.