RIDGEFIELD — Twice a week, Antoinette Brennan puts her yoga mat on her living room floor and logs onto Zoom.
The 88-year-old has been taking virtual classes through Founders Hall, the donor-supported senior center in Ridgefield.
“It’s been a lifesaver during this shutdown period,” Brennan said. “It really gives you something to look forward to even though it’s not person-to-person.”
Senior centers around the state have been closed during the coronavirus pandemic, but many have continued to offer virtual programs and other outreach to older residents, who are at risk for the virus.
“Our halls are empty, but we’ve never been busier,” said Tamath K. Rossi, director of Southbury Senior Center, where she said 38 percent of the town is over 60 years old. “We’ve basically had to re-create ourselves. We’re very busy on the phone, Zoom calls, coming up with creative ideas to do outreach to them.”
Senior centers were allowed to reopen at limited capacities under state guidelines on Sept. 1, the start of National Senior Center Month.
Some, including the Heritage Center in Redding, have started outdoor programs.
“They are so happy to get together, to get some sense of normalcy,” said Michelle Stillman, the administrative assistant who has taken over activities since the program director retired in June. “Seniors are especially isolated, obviously because they are in a vulnerable age bracket. It’s so great to see people that you know, get together and exercise and enjoy each other’s company.”
But local senior centers have not opened indoors and are not sure when they will. Those that have offered activities outside are worried about how colder weather will affect programs.
Maintaining the connection
In New Milford, the Community Culinary School of Northwestern Connecticut has delivered two meals twice a week to 75 seniors. The school used to provide meals at the senior center.
“It’s a great way also that we’re able to check in and do a friendly ‘hello,’ even if it’s just through the window or screen door,” said Jasmin Marie J. Ducusin-Jara, acting director of the New Milford Senior Center.
Ensuring seniors had food was a major concern in Southbury, too, Rossi said. Volunteers started a “grocery brigade,” delivering 863 orders worth more than $78,400 between March 27 to June 9, she said.
Seniors who seemed to be struggling were connected with a program to receive daily friendly calls, Rossi said. The center also holds a monthly “pick-up parade,” where seniors receive crafts, jigsaw puzzles, activity books and more.
The newsletter became more interactive, with members encouraged to submit responses to questions about their childhood bedroom, how they met their spouse or how the pandemic has affected them.
“They really liked that,” Rossi said. “It seemed like they were actually exchanging with one another and interacting.”
New Milford seniors have received “uplift” items, such as crafts, to keep them entertained, Ducusin-Jara said. Earlier this month, the center held a “You donut know how much we missed you” event, where seniors drove by to pick up donuts.
Redding and Ridgefield called members to check in, while Redding seniors got cards made by elementary-school students.
Ridgefield’s Founders Hall closed March 11 and has been offering fitness and lecture classes over Zoom since March 23.
“Truly, they’re looking for that routine,” said Grace Weber, executive director. “They appreciated having a schedule.”
The New Milford VNA has offered virtual support groups, but the senior center is looking to offer more fun and educational programs online.
“It is a little bit hard because our senior population is so varied in their knowledge and use of different technology systems,” Ducusin-Jara said.
But she added the pandemic has encouraged seniors to learn to use technology, especially since they often have to for virtual doctor’s appointments.
It was a “tremendous learning curve” for staff and seniors to get accustomed to the technology, Weber said. The hall gets questions daily.
“For the most part, they’ve been incredible at adapting to this new environment,” Weber said.
Brennan had used the computer and owned an iPad before the pandemic, but had never gone on Zoom.
“Grace has made it so simple for us with the Zoom,” Brennan said. “She sends us the links and all you have to do is touch on it and low and behold there is the instructor.”
Redding offered virtual program, too.
“Honestly, that wasn’t the same as in-person,” Stillman said.
Isolation for seniors
Seniors, especially, have been urged to stay home during the pandemic.
“This is really hard on our membership,” Weber said. “It’s tough to not be able to be connected to everybody.”
Rossi said she has had an increase in calls from children whose parents appear to be declining cognitively during the pandemic.
“The isolation, it’s affecting all of us….seniors even more so,” she said. “Their relationships here and the activities here fill a very big void for many of them.”
Brennan moved to Ridgefield from Virginia in October 2018 with her husband to be closer to their children. He died in June 2019.
She had started to get to know people from church and Founders Hall, but does not have close friends in town.
“I was just starting to get my connections going and then it all shut down,” Brennan said.
She has spent the pandemic reading and walking her dog. Until recently, her son bought her groceries.
For Kathy and Bob Moriarty, their many Zoom classes through Founders Hall have kept them busy. But it has still been a lonely time.
“We fell into a very good pattern right from the beginning,” said 72-year-old Kathy Moriarty, who has lived in Ridgefield for 46 years. “As the COVID fatigue sets in, you’re missing your friends and the social aspect.”
Outdoors a ‘game changer’
On Thursday afternoon, Deby Goldenberg taught tai chi outside to five to six seniors in Redding. Everyone wore masks and had Purell and wipes, she said.
“It was a game changer, a game changer, especially for the older people that haven’t been going out,” she said.
Among the attendees was 70-year-old Sherry Karraker. She said some of the classes—like her ukulele one— work well on Zoom. But Goldenberg’s tai chi class was tough to do at home.
“I’ve really missed working out with her since March,” said Karraker, who has lived in Redding since 1996.
Founders Hall started patio classes in July and offers “Music Mondays” and Friday game days outside. Attendees must make a reservation and are required to wear masks, Weber said.
About 60 people participate in the Monday and Friday programs, while 30 are in an outdoor art class and 12 are in a knitting class. Around 1,100 people are on Zoom classes, she said.
Southbury does not have space onsite to offer programs outside, but held an art activity in a park and plans to host an end-of-summer picnic later this month. In New Milford, there are special senior hours at parks.
But when the weather gets cold, senior centers will have to return to virtual programs and phone calls.
“I’m not sure what next year will look like,” Stillman said. “Obviously, it’s such a fluid thing. You don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day.”