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How senior center patrons, admins are connecting after — and because of — pandemic isolation

Three women who appear white pose for a photo with their arms around each other.
Nina Keck
/
VPR
Rutland residents Sandra Gartner, Ada Pezzetti and Fran Oaken stand for a portrait at the Godnick Adult Center after a recent yoga class. The three women all say they're regulars at the center and use it for a variety of activities.

When you think of senior centers, there are some lingering stereotypes. Ada Pezzetti of Rutland imagined lots of bingo and knitting.

“Just the word 'senior,'" Pezzetti laughed. "I did not want to be identified with the word 'senior.'"

Yet these community hubs provide older Americans with places to gather for services, meals and activities. And research shows they’re vital in helping people age at home.

When the pandemic forced them to close in 2020, many older Vermonters suffered from the lack of social interaction. But over the last several months, senior centers have been restarting activities with mask requirements and other precautions.

Ada Pezzetti is grateful they've reopened. Despite her preconceived notions, the 82-year-old has become a regular at the Godnick Adult Center in Rutland.

“I not only do yoga here on Fridays, I also do bone builders on Mondays and Wednesdays, and that has really been a godsend," she said. "When I come out of the grocery store they say, 'Oh this bag is too heavy.' And I say 'No no, I go to bone builders, I can handle it!'”

A photo of an older woman who appears white wearing a face mask. She's looking into a window and has light illuminating her face.
Nina Keck
/
VPR
Rutland resident Ada Pezzetti remembers thinking senior centers were places to play bingo and knit. Now the 82-year-old is a regular at the Godnick Adult Center in Rutland, where she takes yoga and weight lifting classes.

Rutland resident Sandra Gartner takes line dancing, yoga and aerobics.

“Primarily for me, it’s been a place where I can exercise with people around my age level,” she said.

Gartner and Rutland resident Fran Oaken were walking out of a yoga class recently, and Oaken, who is 86, was talking about how she uses one of the meeting rooms for crafting.

"I'm part of a group called the 'Fiber Floozies,'" Oaken said.

"Excuse me?” asked Gartner, feigning shock.

"Fiber Floozies," repeated Oaken, even louder. “It's a hooking group … rug hooking!”

“You’re a hooker!” Gartner laughed.

“I definitely am!" Oaken said.

That laughter is a big reason why these women enjoy coming here. And the friendships. Oaken says when you’re sitting in a room with others hooking a rug, you talk:

You get into conversations about books, about family problems." You develop all kinds of relationships, some even intimate with the people. So that's what I get out of it.”

"People need people," Oaken added with a shrug.

"They’re sort of these hidden gems in communities. Until you need one, you might not know what they do and what your senior center in your community does."
Deanna Jones, co-chair of the Vermont Association of Senior Centers and Meal Providers

Not surprisingly, so do the administrators who run senior centers.

Vermont has 48 of these community hubs, and they’re all different. Some are multi-generational centers. Some focus on food and meal programs. Others offer educational outreach. Some are independent nonprofits, while others like Rutland’s fall under their town’s municipal oversight.

All try to help Vermonters age in place.

Deanna Jones has directed the Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock for 11 years.

“They’re sort of these hidden gems in communities," Jones said. "Until you need one, you might not know what they do, and what your senior center in your community does.”

Data shows they provide a significant return on investment for their communities, but most struggle with small budgets, aging staff and a limited ability to recruit new and younger employees.

Computer screen shot of nine people attending a virtual meeting via zoom.
Screenshot
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Members of the Vermont Association of Senior Centers and Meal Providers (VASCAMP) meet virtually in February during their monthly meeting. Deanna Jones leads the group and is pictured top row, middle box.

Because of all that, Jones says historically it’s been hard for administrators to find the time to connect with each other.

“And that's how COVID, if there is a silver lining for senior centers, really brought us together, to be able to strengthen our network and talk about day to day issues," she said.

Jones says senior centers in Vermont don’t have a governing body or state organization they report to. What they do have is something called VASCAMP — the Vermont Association of Senior Centers and Meal Providers. Jones is co-chair.

She says VASCAMP has been around for about a decade, and in years past, they met annually, in person. But when the pandemic hit, she and other members say this sleepy group became very important.

Meetings went virtual, every month. That made it easier for administrators to attend. Officials from DAIL, the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living were invited, along with heads of Vermont area agencies on aging.

DAIL's Conor O'Dea says the monthly meetings have provided a great platform to share best practices and stay connected.

A photo of woman who appears white wearing red flannel and a face mask, standing outside green doors leading inside a brick building.
Nina Keck
/
VPR
April Cioffi stands outsiude the Godnick Adult Center in Rutland, where she is program director. She says in 2021, they had approximately 430 members. She says seeing older Vermonters so secluded through the pandemic has made her realize even more how crucial the relationships and bonds are that form when people attend activities together at the center.

April Cioffi directs the Godnick Adult Center in Rutland and says the network has been a godsend. Members have been able to vent, she says, support each other, and ask questions about rapidly changing COVID protocols and how best to access federal funding.

She say the group has also been a great place to share what works, like when she wanted to launch a new computer lending program in Rutland.

"I was able to reach out on a VASCAMP meeting, one of our virtual meetings, and say, 'Hey, we're looking to offer this on a small scale. Has anyone done this already?' And immediately someone's hand went up in the meeting, they said, 'Hey, we do this, I'll connect with you after the meeting,'" Cioffi said. "She did; we had a follow up phone call and then she put me in touch with her tech guy. And it made it so I could get questions answered from someone who's already done it.”

A 2021 survey by Vermont’s department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, showed senior centers in the state served more than 11,000 older Vermonters annually. That’s down from 13,000 before the pandemic.

More from VPR: As Vermont Opens Up, Some Senior Programs Move Forward Slowly

But when you consider Vermont’s aging demographic, state officials expect that number to rebound and grow. That makes these newfound connections between community centers even more important.

At Rutland’s Godnick Center, once the snow melts, the center plans to make a fleet of electric bikes available, including a recumbent trike.

"It’ll be a new offering," Cioffi said.

And she says if the program works well in Rutland, you may see other senior centers in Vermont trying something similar.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck:

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