Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Ypsilanti Senior Center has found a number of innovative new ways to keep its users nourished, active, and connected to the world.
"When we first closed down, we thought that after two weeks, this would all be over. But as we started seeing that this was going to last longer than two weeks, the first thing we started doing was switching over to a frozen meal pickup," says senior center director Monica Prince.
A caterer delivers frozen meals to the center every Monday, packaged as five meals per person. Prince says about 130 to 140 meals are distributed each week.
However, the lunches that the senior center previously hosted every weekday didn't just provide nutrition to seniors, but also a socializing opportunity that was harder to replace. Luckily, soon after frozen meal distribution began, a group of medical students from the University of Michigan contacted Prince saying they wanted to help out.
"I gave them our list of phone numbers of members and they started a friendly calling service for us," Prince says. "We devised a script of things we want to know, like 'Do they have meals?' or 'Do they need anything?'"
The senior center has had a long-time partnership with Washtenaw Community College that provides exercise instructors for multiple exercise opportunities every week at the senior center. Center staff decided to keep senior members active by taking those classes online.
An exercise instructor conducts a mindful movement exercise class on Facebook Live every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. On Thursdays at 10:30 a.m., there's a hip-hop for seniors class.
"People love both of them," Prince says.
Senior center member Sandy Ellinger has taken online classes in ball exercise, strength training, chair exercise, and yoga. She had been supplementing her workouts at a local gym three times a week with exercise classes at the senior center. Now that gyms are closed, the online classes are her main exercise opportunities.
"I was really sorry to hear that the center had to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though I certainly understand and appreciate why," she says. "The good news was that these exercise classes would be offered online. So I've been exercising with them for several weeks now."
She says she appreciates that the classes are adapted for all ability levels and any limitations exercisers have. For instance, Ellinger says she has bad knees and needs to modify some yoga poses. She says several of her friends who use wheelchairs can take advantage of the chair exercise classes.
One downside to participating in exercise classes and other senior center programming online is that not all seniors have the needed technology skills or reliable wifi. But senior center staff are addressing that as well.
"We've partnered with the Digital Inclusion [shop] at Eastern, and ended up purchasing five laptops from them," Prince says.
Seniors who wanted to keep in contact with family and take classes online but didn't have the resources to do that snapped up all five in one week, she adds. Additionally, a church youth group has offered to help with troubleshooting laptops for senior center members.
Prince says she and her staff are also discussing setting up a laptop in a room at the senior center so that seniors who don't have strong wifi or the right technology at home can do telemedicine visits with their doctors from the senior center.
The senior center also recently started a pilot program to partner senior center members with students from Eastern Michigan University for collaborative storytelling.
"We're going to pair up an older adult with a college student, and they'll hopefully talk about how things are going with the coronavirus, how it has changed their life, or if they have memories of things that happened in the past that helped [them cope with the pandemic]," Prince says. The goal is to put together a series of podcasts about "life at home during the pandemic."
Prince says that while the senior center is closed to the public, she's still there each day taking phone calls from seniors who need help with landlord issues or finding cleaning supplies, or who just want to chat about how their grandkids are doing.
"Before the coronavirus, I felt like my major job here was to get people out of their houses and doing things with other people at the senior center, and now my focus is on keeping them home and yet providing all the services we provided before," Prince says.
Ypsilanti-area seniors can look for updates on the senior center's website and can find live or recorded exercise classes on the Ypsilanti Senior Center Facebook page. The senior center is also holding a fundraising campaign to help the center continue to provide meals and other help during the pandemic.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Sarah Rigg.