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‘A bit of a lifeline’: Still closed, Baltimore County senior centers keep seniors connected online

Shirley Hewitt stays social online, playing bingo and taking art classes offered by Baltimore County senior centers.
Shirley Hewitt stays social online, playing bingo and taking art classes offered by Baltimore County senior centers. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Shirley Hewitt did not expect to spend the early days of her retirement homebound in the throes of a public health crisis.

The 74-year-old dreaded the thought of a life devoid of many obligations. Before the pandemic, she avoided spending time in the Dundalk home she once shared with her late mother, preferring to keep busy by volunteering at her church, taking art classes, playing the slots or organizing activities with the Red Hat Society.

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She retired from her part-time job in April, shortly after she began self-isolating in mid-March.

“For a couple months there, it was like I was in this house alone with the cat all day, every day,” Hewitt said. “I don’t usually get depressed, but I had my moments.”

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That was before Baltimore County’s senior centers shifted programming to a virtual setting — a learning curve for all involved, but one that Hewitt says has made a world of difference for her during her quarantined days.

“I have something to do every day of the week,” she said. “It has been such a blessing.”

Baltimore County’s 20 senior centers, which typically see around 20,000 visitors annually, were abruptly shuttered in March as the coronavirus made its way to Maryland.

And even as the state has entered the final stage of Gov. Larry Hogan’s reopening plan, senior centers will be among the last to restore in-person services after Hogan’s state of emergency has been lifted and Baltimore County gives the green light.

The cautious approach to reopening them, of course, is because individuals 65 years and older are in a high-risk category to develop complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Older adults tend to be invisible, and then you put COVID on top of it,” said Dana Bradley, dean of the Erickson School of Aging Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“This is why senior centers have been so vital in the lives of older adults during COVID, because they have regular services across the continuum of brain health, to physical activity, to eating socially."

As of Sept. 16, Maryland had the 12th most deaths per capita and the 22nd most cases per capita among states, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center.

Closing the centers was “very disappointing” for everyone, said Laura Riley, director of Baltimore County’s Department of Aging. “We know the social connections are critical to people’s well-being, but it’s not worth the risk to their life.”

Residents 60 and older have accounted for 86% of the state’s total 3,712 coronavirus deaths as of Sept. 16. Nearly 23% of the county’s confirmed cases are in people older than 59.

Mary-Lou Stenchley joined the Bykota Senior Center in Towson 19 years ago to use its fitness center after her second knee surgery.

“I really have made many friends and had the opportunity to feel part of a community,” the Towson resident said.

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Stenchley, 79, and some other Bykota seniors have kept in touch during Friday afternoon Zoom calls, reminiscing over old times, trading observations about pandemic living and sharing news about their families.

“I think for some people it has been a bit of a lifeline to have the opportunity to go on Zoom,” she said.

In Baltimore County, where seniors make up a quarter of the roughly 830,000 residents, senior centers are not only a hub for recreation, they serve as a gateway to government resources and other services, said Julie Lynn, director of the Bykota Senior Center.

“People might not know what the Aging Department does, but they know there’s a senior center,” she said.

Hewitt, for instance, would visit a senior center seeking the help of a volunteer financial aide to file her tax returns. She worries she won’t be able to consult with a state health insurance program counselor about Medicare during open enrollment this year.

Fortunately, Lynn said those services are among the programs still provided virtually through senior centers. And absent face-to-face interaction, the Maryland Access Point of Baltimore County phone number is still available for seniors seeking counsel or information about resources.

And some senior centers, like Catonsville and the Parkville Senior Center, also serve as food pickup sites for residents older than 60 who request it.

Although the shift to virtual programming had “kinda a slow start ... Once we all wrapped our heads around ‘this is gonna go on for a long time’ … it became, ‘How do we keep in touch and keep people engaged when they’re home?’” said Michelle Marseilles, assistant director of the Catonsville Senior Center.

Stenchley was among the senior center volunteers who signed up at the outset of the pandemic to check in with more than 50 senior center members.

“There are some people from Bykota who have not left their house yet,” she said. “They are that frightened."

Over the months, the senior centers have ramped up their free programming. Each center updates its own Facebook page and keeps its members apprised of events through newsletters, like historical re-enactments, lectures, yoga classes or No Senior Eats Alone Day on Sept. 17.

The programs have gotten more robust. Hewitt maintains a schedule to keep track of her favorites: Family Feud; bingo, wherein prizes include masks that are mailed to the winner’s home; and Coloring Zentangles patterns.

“There’s more all the time,” she said. “It’s even hard to keep up with them.”

That’s because in the online setting, users can access all the events offered by the senior centers instead of just the one or two that they’ve joined. The centers pool their programming and offer it to everyone who registers on just one event page.

“We have this interesting opportunity for people to take advantage of anything we’re offering, basically — as long as they can get online,” Lynn said.

Stenchley suspects a lack of computer access is a widespread issue preventing county seniors from participating in online programming.

And older folks aren’t usually tech-savvy, Hewitt noted, although senior center staff will patiently help those just learning to use Zoom or WebEx, the two video-sharing platforms used by the centers.

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The classes have been gaining more participation, too, senior center administrators say. Whereas the Catonsville Senior Center may have had between 200 and 250 visitors on an average pre-pandemic day, they’re now seeing as many as 330 users a day register for programs they’ve scheduled, Marseilles said.

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But membership and participation across all senior centers are difficult to track. The department is still figuring out how to register new members online, and numbers on new members who have joined amid the pandemic were not available.

“They all say it’s not the same — and it certainly is not,” Marseilles said about the online events. “But to be able to still keep up with your hobbies and the classes and interact with your friends that you had before, if we have to do that through a computer screen, then that’s what we do for right now so we can stay connected to each other.”

Hewitt sees a benefit to the virtual programming: Seniors who may not have the means to drive to a center now have more material available for free at home. At Bykota, continuing the online events would help address the lack of available parking, Lynn said.

Hewitt’s already asked senior center administration if they would continue the online events when the centers reopen, something Riley said they will do.

Hewitt gets anxious when she hears people talk about “the new normal” and becomes discouraged when she reads about the spikes in cases after holidays like Independence Day.

“I know it’s hard but if we would just stay the path for a little longer,” she said, trailing off. She’s planning to celebrate her 75th birthday next August with a Sept. 1 bus trip to New England that she and her cousin booked through the Catonsville Senior Center. The trip originally planned for this year was canceled when the senior centers closed.

“I’m looking forward to that,” she said. “I can’t picture another year of this. I really can’t.”

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