By Thomas Goldsmith

In January, staff and volunteers at a Wendell senior center were already making plans for this December’s holiday fest for members, one that would make up for a COVID-canceled event last Christmas.

It still took 30 volunteers and two staff people the better part of a year to assemble and present this December’s Eastern Wake Senior Center gathering — with no cash budget. The result was a combination family reunion, pandemic healer, gift presentation and social therapy session for a local population of about 100 older people in need of this kind of relief. 

Registrants even received $10 in cash donated by local merchants as part of a gift bag with intentional ingredients including tools and grocery store gift cards. 

In an increasingly diverse Eastern Wake, a newly hired program coordinator Divya Venkataganesan, 24, a native of India, became one key to the plan to present guests with music, dance, crafts, gifts, food and socializing, all while following pandemic-era guidelines.

With social distancing firmly in place, senior members enjoyed seeing friends and acquaintances they had sorely missed, Venkataganesan said.

Jennie Griggs, director of the nonprofit Resources for Seniors centers in Wake Forest and Wendell, said a survey of members showed that they didn’t want to return to in-person events without the strict guidelines created by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“There’s a genuine health risk as we’ve seen across the country, but it’s led to a sense of isolation and loneliness that they’re experiencing now,” Griggs said. “Some of the people that have been able to come back for limited stuff are just so joyful to be able to see other people.”

Venkataganesan cited her own family’s tradition of bringing together those of all ages, a means of avoiding the social isolation that can heighten loneliness and illness.

two decorated tables host several seniors at their holiday party
Members of the East Wake Senior Center choir entertain at the Dec. 10 holiday festival in Wendell. The center staged the event with careful social distancing after last year’s gala was canceled because of the pandemic. Submitted photo.

‘Everyone is included’

“I grew up with everyone in the same house, my grandparents, great-grandparents, Mom and Dad, we all were together,” said Venkataganesan, who is also a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill master of public health candidate. “Moving here, I saw that the elderly population really got siloed. So I really want to make sure everyone is included.” 

Across North Carolina, senior centers and volunteers work to bring company, material goods, technical assistance and entertainment to their members throughout the year. That’s especially important during months that can feel cold and cheerless, and often leave seniors without the friendly company they look forward to at the centers. 

The National Council on Aging is encouraging centers in North Carolina and across the nation to modernize and upgrade programming to reach goals such as reducing isolation and preventing falls among older people and those with disabilities. Meanwhile, scholarly research has tracked the evolving roles of senior centers for at least a decade.

“Senior centers serve as an entry point for the aging service network and protect against social isolation,” University of Connecticut pharmacy professor Jeannette Wick wrote in 2012. “These centers do not just offer low-cost meals, nor provide institution-like services; they are diverse and vital institutions.”

An older hwite woman and a young Indian woman pass out recognitions to volunteers
Norma Ferrell and Divya Venkataganesan, former and current activities directors at the Eastern Wake Senior Center in Wendell, present loyal volunteers at a holiday event with special labels recognizing their service. Submitted photo.

Nearly a third of Wendell residents are 50 or older, a rate a little higher than the state average. That’s despite the Wendell Falls development bringing significant numbers of younger people to the Raleigh suburb.

The Wendell center’s volunteers organization started its planning last winter when the center was operating almost entirely as a virtual resource. They wanted to make sure that the event would meet the various needs of members. 

“We’ve decorated the place, and we have some tents outside so it’s a COVID-safe event,” Joe Coughlin, president of the volunteers board, said on the telephone during the runup to the celebration. “People can congregate outside as they wish. But inside the building we have to move through — we can’t have too many people in the room.”

Music, dance on display

Members entering the building were greeted by carols from the center choir, led by Roberta Hole, 94. The dozen singers harmonized together for the first time since Christmas of 2019. 

“Seeing them sing really brought a lot of tears,” Venkataganesan said.

Those attending the private event also got to take pictures with Griggs, Venkataganesan and in a sort of “bittersweet” turnover, former activities director Norma Ferrell, who was being celebrated at the end of her long tenure in Eastern Wake.

Members, 12 at a time, were also treated to a performance by the Strutters, a line-dancing group based at the center. On the way out, volunteers distributed gift bags designed to be both useful and entertaining — with $10 in cash, plus gift cards to restaurants and grocery stores as well as other useful donations. A group of Asian restaurant owners came up with $900 to allow for the always-welcome cash.

three older women in holiday clothes perform a dance
Members of the Eastern Wake Senior Center dance team, the Strutters, entertain at a Dec. 10 holiday event in Wendell. After a similar event was canceled last Christmas, staff and volunteers went all out to provide a memorable gala this year. Submitted photo.

Emerging into the outdoors, members got to cruise a crafts fair of center-generated items, with a policy of generosity for those unable to pay full freight. However, enough people, perhaps warmed up by the hot cider at the event’s conclusion, shelled out freely enough that the crafts fair netted more than $300 for the center.

NC’s warm hearts deliver

At a time of seemingly harsh public discourse, the spirit of generosity is extending across the state to places such as Barco, near the Virginia border and the Atlantic Ocean. Staffers and volunteers met the need at the Currituck County Senior Center by gathering canned and boxed food — non-perishable and shelf-stable. Home Bound Christmas, another program in the same small town, collected and gave out new and unopened items such as tissues, hand soap, hand sanitizer, unscented lotion, Dove body soap and wrapped candy.

In Hertford, Senior Santa takes the reins. And in Buncombe County, a program called Senior Wish List, full up for this season, took specific requests from older people and those with disabilities — generating lots of requests for slippers, gift cards, sweaters, bedclothes, candy and even a “book of jokes or funny cartoons.”

Back in Wendell, what was the 30,000-foot view, the larger goal of what this senior center and others across the state are achieving for the holidays? Coughlin, the volunteer chief, said it’s necessary to take a pre-COVID lens to that question.

“In past years, we’ve always had a Thanksgiving dinner that was provided by some of the local businesses,” he said. “They provide food, and then some of the members that also volunteer do a potluck.”

Members fondly anticipated the communal meals at both Thanksgiving and Christmas as festive, family-like occasions. But the heavy hand of COVID-19 knocked the meals off the table. 

“We’re still unable to do that,” Coughlin said. “Any meals have to be institutionally provided and we can’t do that. But we wanted them to be able to socialize and to get these people back out of the house where they’ve been stuck.”

‘Making beautiful music in the New Year’

People who deliver Meals on Wheels in Wendell have noticed that some of the people who get that service have chosen to stay effectively housebound in the past 18 to 20 months. 

“They are too afraid to come out and congregate,” Coughlin said. “Even though they’ve been vaccinated, they’re very, very cautious. Very cautious.”

Volunteers and staff look forward to the gradual return of education, services and plain old friendly hanging out at the center. Life-affirming activities such as shag dancing should again mesh with practical acts such as providing meals and health training.

“We are looking forward to more togetherness to provide in-person exercise, crafting, and making beautiful music in the New Year and above all, kicking COVID to the curb,” Venkataganesan said.

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Thomas Goldsmith

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 senior centers use holidays to reunite the lonely, combat continuing peril of COVID”

  1. Very well written story about the Wendell Senior Center. Happy to see that someone recognizes the need the center fills for the elderly in this area and the need for larger facility to meet these needs.

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