Senior citizens weigh socializing versus social distancing

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  • Joan Banas, a volunteer at the Northampton Senior Center, washing tables after lunch Tuesday, March 10, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • A hand sanitizer station at the entrance of the Northampton Senior Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Michael Gray, an administrative assistant at the Northampton Senior Center, wipes down surfaces in response to the threat of the new coronavirus, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Michael Gray, an administrative assistant at the Northampton Senior Center, wipes down surfaces in response to the threat of the coronavirus, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Rollas Batten, 73, of Northampton, and his wife, Suzanne Rogers, 74, of Northampton, finish lunch at the Northampton Senior Center. Rogers said they would not be coming back for lunch there because of concerns about the new coronavirus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Northampton residents Suzanne Rogers, 74, and her husband, Rollas Batten, 73, finish lunch at the Northampton Senior Center. Rogers said they would not be coming back for lunch there because of concerns about the new coronavirus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Michael Gray, an administrative assistant at the Northampton Senior Center, wipes down surfaces in response to the threat of the new coronavirus, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Easthampton residents Leslie Sharr, left, and Theo Cooper play a game of Rummikub at the Easthampton Council on Aging Enrichment Center on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bottles of hand-sanitizing gel and spray disinfectant in the fitness room of the Easthampton Council on Aging Enrichment Center on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton Council on Aging Executive Director Brendan Rogers uses a broad spectrum quaternary disinfectant spray to wipe down equipment in the fitness room of the Enrichment Center on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton residents Leslie Sharr, left, and Theo Cooper play a game of Rummikub at the Easthampton Council on Aging Enrichment Center on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Easthampton Council on Aging Enrichment Center was virtually empty in the noon hour on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 3/11/2020 2:40:54 PM

A sign has been placed at the front of the Applewood Retirement Community in Amherst that reads: “Welcome to Applewood. However If You Are Not Feeling Well Please Do Not Enter The Building. This Is A Population At Risk. We Appreciate Your Cooperation!”

Applewood is one of many homes for the elderly and community centers preparing for the rapidly transmitting new coronavirus, also known as the COVID-19 virus. With the first presumptive positive case in western Massachusetts reported in Pittsfield last Saturday, and 92 presumptive and confirmed cases throughout the state as of Wednesday, the virus has killed over 4,000 people around the world, leaving senior communities especially at risk.

Despite the sign at Applewood, Executive Director Rob Clafin isn’t too concerned about COVID-19 infiltrating the retirement home. “I’m more concerned about the flu,” he said, sitting in his office Monday. “The flu is a much higher risk.” As a precautionary measure, Applewood has implemented a pandemic plan that involves hand-sanitizing stations, additional cleaning, scheduled information sessions with residents about the risks and spread of the coronavirus, and, as of Wednesday afternoon, a ban on all outside visitors and groups over the next few weeks. 

Similar plans have been implemented in senior community centers throughout the Pioneer Valley. “Amherst is well prepared for COVID-19,” said Amherst’s Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek, who added that the town has been monitoring the virus since December. “We’ve been preparing for a long time.”

Ziomek said that Amherst public health officials confer daily with the state’s Department of Public Health to reassess the spread of the virus and what measures need to be put in place to protect the communities most at risk. “For seniors, keeping themselves healthy is the priority,” Ziomek said. 

The Amherst Senior Center is also reconsidering whether to host certain events and programs coming up, said Mary Beth Ogulewicz, Amherst’s director of senior services: “Essential programs, such as those about food security, will remain uninterrupted in the weeks and months ahead.”

“But,” Ziomek added, “we may cut down some other nonessential events in the meantime.”

Likewise, the Northampton Senior Center will be “limiting the size of groups in order to reduce person-to-person contact,” said Marie Westburg, the center’s Director of Senior Services, adding that it will also be “closing off the use of many rooms to support efforts to clean.”

“People are worried,” Westburg said, “but it hasn’t really affected business. People are still coming, especially the regulars.”

Brendan Rogers, director of the Easthampton Council on Aging and Enrichment Center, said his center hasn’t seen a decline over the last few days, either, but that he “expects to see a decline next week … If this continues, hits the Valley hard, and we don’t have the supplies to deal with it, it’s going to be a problem.” While Rogers hasn’t seen panic yet, “it’s going to be hysteria” if cleaning supplies run out, he said.

Worry sets in

Ogulewicz and Ziomek both noted that residents are coming to Amherst Senior Center looking for more information about the virus. “We’re getting excellent questions being asked from the community,” Ziomek said. Brianna Sunryd, Amherst’s communications manager, added that the town has set up an electronic emergency alert system that people can sign up for to get important updates and advice about protecting themselves from the virus. “It’s been a really important tool,” she said.

And while the town is doing its best to keep people calm, some seniors are feeling anxious. “It’s a nightmare!” Cate Morrish, an Applewood resident, exclaimed Monday, standing outside the entrance to the home. “I can’t even take the bus anymore.” Although she dips outside to enjoy the nice weather, Morrish is set on staying in more. “The nurse says not to worry, but my hands are bleeding from the amount of washing I’m doing!”

Other seniors echoed Morrish’s concerns. Suzanne Rogers and Rollas Batten of Northampton usually come to the city’s Senior Center a few times a month for lunch, but Tuesday was their last visit “for a while.” “We like coming for the good lunch and the jolly company,” Batten said. “But,” Rogers cut in, “this is the last time we’re coming for lunch for now, which is sad.”

“It’s important, especially for seniors, to socialize and get out and see people,” said Leslie Sharr, an Easthampton senior who comes to that city’s Senior Center three times a week to play games like Rummikub and do yoga. “I hope we don’t go overboard canceling things.”

As in Amherst and Northampton, Easthampton plans to continue providing “essential services,” while scaling back on other nonessential programs and events. In the meantime, volunteers and center employees are cleaning vigorously for the seniors who are still coming in.

As he wiped down exercise machines in the Easthampton center’s gym, Brendan Rogers said aloud what many are thinking: “I’m not gonna say I’m quite terrified yet, but …”

He grimaced and went back to wiping.

 

 


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