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Sweet relief: For the few who take advantage, refuge from heat found at area cooling centers

Wayne Canton utilizes the cooling center at the Northampton senior center on July 16, 2013. The center opened its doors to the community to people who did not have air-conditioning and needed to cool off in the hot weather.
AYRIKA WHITNEY

Wayne Canton utilizes the cooling center at the Northampton senior center on July 16, 2013. The center opened its doors to the community to people who did not have air-conditioning and needed to cool off in the hot weather. AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

It was business as usual Tuesday and Wednesday at senior centers in Amherst, Northampton and South Hadley, with regulars stopping in for lunch, movies, games and discussion groups despite the appeal to the masses to flock to air conditioned facilities as cooling places.

In fact, attendance was down a bit for lunch, with Amherst serving just 10 people, half of last Friday’s turnout, and South Hadley feeding 46, when the average is 55.

Amherst Senior Center Director Nancy Pagano said that just getting dressed and getting out may be too much effort for older people on an extremely hot and humid day.

“That is an impediment in itself,” she said.

One of the town’s large apartment complexes for the elderly, Clark House on Lessey Street, has air conditioned units and the other two complexes, Ann Whalen Apartments on Kellogg Avenue and Chestnut Court, just off East Pleasant Street, do not.

Northampton’s senior center on Conz Street was being used mainly by regulars Tuesday afternoon, though some arrived earlier than usual because of the heat and humidity.

“I haven’t yet seen anyone here because it’s a cooling center,” said Council on Aging Director Patricia Shaughnessy. She was referring to the city Health Department’s decision Monday designating the senior center an official cooling spot. The center will be open to residents in need of air conditioning through Friday during its regular hours of 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to the department.

Vincent Ryan, 80, of Florence, arrived Tuesday afternoon for his weekly meet-up with former co-worker Richard Cranson, 75, who volunteers in the center’s coffee shop.

At Pro-Brush Co. where they used to work, “the only place that had air conditioning was in the break room,” Ryan said. “It was grin and bear it.”

Ryan said he does have air conditioning at his home in Florence.

Center staff members were offering people ice water and encouraging them to take advantage of the air-conditioned game room, coffee shop and book sale table in the lobby — and also to bring their own snacks if they so desired.

“We’re telling people we’re here, come on down!” Shaughnessy said.

At the Amherst Senior Center in the Bangs Community Center at 70 Boltwood Walk, a big stainless steel bowl filled with ice and bottles of water set out on the counter offered relief to overheated patrons. Volunteer John Magarian, who was cleaning up the remains of lunch in the deserted cafeteria at 12:30 p.m., said he noticed people coming in and enjoying the cold water.

“I’m glad we’re doing it,” he said. “People have been coming in and taking the water. That’s a good sign.”

In the early afternoon, there were about a half-dozen people at the center working on puzzles and playing mah-jongg.

Pagano said that during past heat waves the staff has stayed on past closing time to accommodate anyone who wants to come in for relief. And the lobby of the building is open until 10 p.m. But, she said, hardly anyone showed up.

“Some regulars came to watch TV with us and keep us company, but that was it,” she said.

She said the center is seeing most of its activity in the mornings. “People want to get out early in the morning, get their exercise, do their errands,” and then just get home to air conditioning, or to just sit in front of a fan before the worst of the day’s heat hits, she said.

In South Hadley, a large white sandwich board sign with a red arrow in front of the center at 45 Dayton St. points the way to the “Cooling Shelter.”

But inside, a group director Joanne Trybus described as regulars were scattered about the warren of rooms in the former school building watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie on a big-screen TV, playing bingo, attending a computer class and doing needlepoint.

Despite the sign and attempts to get the word out, the cooling shelter concept has not caught on, Trybus said. “Very few people use this as a cooling center, but people are welcome to come.”

In Amherst, Pagano said if people are finding it difficult to get up and out to the center to find relief in its cool rooms, the center would be willing to pay for a van to bring them back and forth.

“If people called to say come get us, we would,” she said. “But nobody ever has.”

One person stopped by Easthampton’s cooling center Tuesday, in a conference room on the second floor of the Public Safety Building on Payson Avenue.

“We’re mainly here to supervise and see if people need medical help,” said Elaine Wood, one of two volunteer members of the city’s Civilian Emergency Response Team who were staffing the center. “I do wish more people knew about it.”

The cooling center, which has a large-screen TV on one wall, will be open every day through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to Fire Chief David Mottor.

“We have a rather large elderly population and a lot of people on fixed or low incomes so that running an air conditioner for several days is not something that’s in their budget,” Mottor said. “With heat indexes approaching 100 degrees, that becomes a health issue.”

In South Deerfield, the South County Senior Center at 67 North Main St. will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Friday as a cooling center.

Many other local communities are keeping centers open for the duration of the heat wave.

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