By Thomas Goldsmith

North Carolina’s senior centers have for decades offered havens of company, support and education for older people but had to adapt most of those roles during the pandemic that hit the over-65 population especially hard.

As the state’s more than 160 centers reopen this year with the ongoing COVID-19 disease still a factor, the National Council on Aging is calling on them to bring their offerings and general outreach up to date for this burgeoning population. 

The intention is to reach an underserved and diverse group of adults with disabilities, as well as older adults, those who risk or encounter injuries from falls and those with additional diseases that include coronary disease, diabetes and arthritis. The group is also subject to depression, substance abuse and other behavioral illness. 

“As our population continues to age, it is critical that we give every person the education and tools they deserve to age with their best possible health,” said Ramsey Alwin, NCOA president.

Christie Smith, Davidson County Senior Center manager, said center-goers’ preferences once remained fairly constant, but with an age-driven split.

Everybody wants tech

“When I first joined Davidson County Social Services nine years ago, I could clearly see a division in programming based on age groups,” Smith said. “Our older population enjoyed the socials and parties, bingo, crafting, et cetera, while our younger seniors wanted exercise groups and technology classes.”

Following the pandemic and 15 months of no indoor programming, leaders have seen significant changes in which programs were most popular.  

“All ages want social interaction and our older adults, 75 up, are eager to enroll in technology classes,” Smith said. “We’ve offered classes on how to use a tablet as well as Zoom 101, and classes quickly filled.” 

Davidson County, with centers in Lexington and Thomasville, will continue to offer and expand the more recent preferences going into 2022.

Sandy Pace, head of a state organization of senior centers and director of the Dare County operation, says some of the changes made of necessity during the pandemic are also proving beneficial and a good fit for new generations.

“Through this COVID event, we have reached an audience that we probably weren’t reaching before because everything was done in person,” said Pace, who leads the North Carolina Senior Center Alliance. ”Everything went to vertical programming, every kind of platform you could imagine — Facebook Live, Zoom, Facebook itself, all kinds of ways in which we hadn’t engaged them before.”

During the pandemic, Dare County filled gaps in in-person services by providing home-delivered meals, drive-thru meals, exercise and craft classes via Facebook Live, Medicare counseling, calls of reassurance, daily trivia events, prescriptions and grocery pickups, and drive-by staff parades. Similar but not identical adjustments went on across the state as leaders surveyed their visitors for preferences.

In Pitt County, the senior center revamped its efforts to support older people, finding the pandemic had made a hard impact.

Months of isolation take toll

“As we opened, the results of months of isolation and inactivity were so obvious,” administrators said in a newsletter. “We saw our seniors with slower gaits, increased limited range of motion. Folks were slower to interact socially, and cognitive skills were lacking. But over the last three months, our seniors have returned!”

In the Greenville center, attendees again seeking healthy living have flocked to exercise and balance classes, music therapy, gardening, bowling, craft classes and falls prevention bingo. (Getting a chuckle out of fall-prevention bingo? Check out the grim facts.) Across the state, people were also gratefully returning to activities they might previously have taken for granted.

‘Do remember me’

“That was good — we’re doing so good!” leader Roxanna Slaughter told her autoharp club participants at the John Robert Kernodle Senior Center in Burlington.  

The zinging, singing sounds of old-fashioned, 36-string autoharps filled a room at the well-appointed center as participants concentrated closely on familiar folk songs and holiday tunes. 

“We’re going to start with ‘Do Lord,’” Slaughter said as she corrected an errant piece of sheet music. “The last line in the chorus has a missing chord… there should be a C chord.”  

Group members said they had really missed getting together during the time of COVID-19. Playing this relatively obscure instrument met one of the guidelines of modernizing senior centers: Pursuing participants’ interests wherever they led.

“I’m a charter member,” said Bill Mitchell, 68. “I just like socializing and I like being here and I love to sing. I retired my instrument recently and I just come along because I like to sing.”

What do seniors want?

Meanwhile, state and federal legislators are supplying millions to home and community-based services, with large pieces of the pie to Meals on Wheels and senior centers, which often work together. 

North Carolina’s county commissions make choices on specific amounts to different initiatives. 

At the federal level, the Agency for Community Living, in cooperation with the National Council on Aging, will shell out $250,000 in the first year of a three-year grant to set up the Modernizing Senior Centers Resource Center.   

Kathleen Cameron, senior director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the National Council on Aging, joined Pace in listing some of the directions that centers are taking as they react to the pandemic and the push for modernization.

“We do a lot of educational classes, a lot of trying to keep people safe,” Pace said. “We want to get you to the right department or the right agency or the right group of people for whatever it is that you want to do, whether it’s related to something as difficult as Medicare and navigating that. 

“Just knowing that in your center you’re willing to do whatever it takes to help get them whatever service or help that they need, I think that that’s a big part of it.”

Cameron said that surveying participants often showed that food was their number one priority. That also required some revamping in the face of COVID concerns.

“Most senior centers run some type of meal program,” Cameron said. “They made meals available at their sites where people could drive up to pick up meals for themselves and their loved ones. Another great activity was the wellness checks, sometimes just a brief phone conversation, at others part of a full evaluation.”

She also said that information technology needs were a constant focus throughout the past two years.

Keeping it young — and old

“It’s figuring out, ‘How do I get my senior center participants access to technology,’ because many of them don’t have that,” Cameron said. “So, there’s working with partners in the community to get them laptops or tablets, and then to train the older adults on how to use those devices.” 

In addition to modernizing in terms of technology, planners want to see more intergenerational thinking in modern centers.

“We want to figure out ways in which other generations — school-aged kids and people in their 20s can be engaged in some of the work of senior centers,” Cameron said. “That’s really important not only for the seniors, but also for the younger people to have those interactions with older adults, because there’s so much they can learn from the seniors.”

‘We had to stop’ 

Back at the Burlington autoharp group, the players struck up a lively “Little Drummer Boy.”

“Everything I like to do is involved in music,” member Peggy Dyer said. “We had to stop the choir for the masks because we couldn’t sing through them for an hour. And right now this is pretty much all we are doing musically.”

Bassist Robert Kievit is relied upon to keep the grooves and structure going, Slaughter said. At rehearsal he recommended a pattern as traditional as time:

“Verse chorus, verse chorus,” Kievit said.  

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Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...

One reply on “NC’s perennially popular senior centers eye post-COVID changes, modernized approaches”

  1. Happy to see the adaptability and visionary aspects of COVID moving forward with concern for all ages of seniors in North Carolina.

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