Senior Center On Front lines of Community Aid, While Seeking It

by Carolyn Bick

Bill rustled open the somewhat battered plastic bag he’d brought along with him, as Linda Lewis put aside two brown bag lunches for him from the grab-and-go cart set up inside the Southeast Seattle Senior Center (SESSC).

“Okay, I’ll be here tomorrow,” Bill said, after the center’s chef, Sharon Smith, offered to make him something special. Bill doesn’t eat red meat, and Tuesday’s menu was set to involve ham.

Smiling as she waved goodbye to him and another senior, Stobbie, center director Lynda Greene let in the next person, Gene, waiting patiently outside. Behind Greene, the center’s darkened cafeteria festooned with St. Patrick’s Day decor sat empty, as Greene, Lewis, and Smith waited for more people to arrive to pick up lunch.

Normally, Greene explained, Gene, Bill, Stobbie, and anywhere from 25 to 30 others would eat together in the center’s cafeteria, but the COVID-19 outbreak and Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to enact mandatory operating restrictions on all but essential services means the center is closed to patrons for at least the next two weeks, starting on Monday, March 16.

Because Greene had already made the decision to close the center for a week, she and the SESSC staff already had plans in place to feed the community’s seniors who rely on the center’s lunchtime meals, which are provided through funding from Sound Generations. The team has created a grab-and-go option, which started the day of the gubernatorial restriction, and allows two seniors at a time to come in, pick up a donation-optional bagged lunch, and leave. In an effort to reach those who do not have reliable transportation to the center, the SESSC crew is also trying to find healthy volunteers who can deliver food right to their usual lunchtime patrons’ doors.

Today’s lunch was a turkey and cheese sandwich, a bagged salad, an apple, and a cookie. But the food stores at the center are running low, due to panicked buyers hoarding the normal staples –– things like bread, deli meats, and long-lived fresh fruit. Panic buying hurts people who can’t easily get to the store, or who can’t afford to stock up on several weeks’ worth of groceries.

Southeast Seattle Senior Center chef Sharon Smith, center, washes her hands in the Southeast Seattle Senior Center in Seattle, Washington, on March 16, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

“We have a list of the food that we want, but it’s not on the shelves. … [Smith] has done a good job of getting the food that she can, we are going into our freezer, figuring out for the week, but, I mean, the shelves are bare. So, now, we are just sort of waiting for this to be finished,” Greene said, referring to the viral pandemic whose United States epicenter appears to be Washington State.

Still, the center is doing its best, and wants to try to keep life as normal as possible for South Seattle’s seniors. Though the practice of self-isolation is necessary for the physical well-being of many of the South End’s older folks, this doesn’t mean it’s without its drawbacks.

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Though Gene joked about calling the center, if he starts talking to his dog, there is a very real danger cloaked in his words. Seniors who live alone already face the detrimental aspects of social isolation and loneliness, both of which can lead to mental decline and depression. Now that they have to self-isolate, in order to stay safe, the risks are even higher.

And this is where the information being disseminated by government officials falls short, Greene said. Most of it appears to be aimed at younger, healthy, people not living with a disability, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of assisting older community members, who will more severely suffer the effects of isolation. The center is trying to mitigate this issue.

“Oftentimes, we have our members who will call the center just to talk. So, we are taking voicemail messages hourly, and returning as many phone calls as we can, just so they will have that interaction with another human being,” Greene said in an earlier phone call.

Food sits in the pantry of the Southeast Seattle Senior Center in Seattle, Washington, on March 16, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

In a further attempt to prevent feelings of isolation, the center is also putting together a phone tree, in order to ensure they not only have a way to check on the center’s members, but also encourage their members to call their older friends.

“At least, they will be able to have interaction with someone calling them, and then that person will be able to call someone else. It would be great, if, during the course of the day, this phone tree could evolve into 300, 400 actual conversations,” Greene said. “That’s what our goal is.”

Greene said the center is also placing daily robocalls to all the center’s members, not only to check in on them and keep them apprised of the daily meal offerings, but also to help calm any fears about the virus’ progression.

While she and the SESSC’s staff appreciate any help the community wants to give, navigating seemingly simple things like food drop-off and phone check-ins can prove to be difficult. Though most people probably have good intentions, Greene said, there are always a few who might try to target the vulnerable in phone scams. There are also issues of privacy or outright fear, particularly for those seniors who live alone.

“Seniors are not very welcoming, in terms of being careful of what might happen, so I don’t know how receptive they would be to having a stranger walk onto their porch, and wanting to hand them a lunch or a meal,” Greene said. “Those are the things we have to think about, because of the world that we now live in. … It really is a balancing act that I and other executive directors have to do.”

Greene said the best way the community can help is by calling or physically checking on their older neighbors –– within the six feet recommended safe distance, of course –– and by offering to go grocery shopping for them. Having a phone conversation with them is a good idea, too, in order to help lessen feelings of isolation, and the center is accepting donations of food.

Even though she is healthy, Greene takes a risk every time she walks the front door of her home: she only has one lung, and is a senior herself. She plans to get tested, just in case, but, until then, she plans to keep working at the center. She’s in a unique position as the director of a place on which many of the South Seattle community’s seniors rely, she said. She sees the community as a family, and, right now, her family needs help.

“Everybody knows that I am very, very protective of our seniors, and … I look at them as if they were my mother or my father, and I know how protective I was of my parents,” Greene said.

Community members interested in donating food to the center should drop off any of the following items, unopened: fresh fruits and vegetables, loaves of bread, lunch meat, cans of tuna, packs of cheese, potato chips, condiments (mayonnaise or mustard), canned vegetables (string beans, corn, etc.), eggs, butter, rice, and Jell-O or pudding cups. The Southeast Seattle Senior Center is located at 4655 S Holly St., Seattle, WA 98118. It is open from 9:00 a.m. – 12 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Carolyn Bick is a South Seattle based journalist. They can be reached here.

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