Photo depicting an opened elevator at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center.

No Elevator Means Limited Social Interaction for Southeast Seattle Senior Center Elders

by Carolyn Bick

For those of us with good knees, hips, and joints, not having access to an elevator isn’t a big deal. It’s fine — we’ll just take the stairs.

But for those who can’t walk up stairs — either due to bad joints or because they rely on  walkers and wheelchairs — not having access to an elevator is a major problem. And now that the elevator at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center (SESSC) has broken down for good, a number of the center’s elders are facing a significant amount of social isolation.

The elevator, SESSC Director Lynda Greene explained in an interview with the Emerald, is as old as the building. It has been in need of replacement for the last five or six years, but a full replacement would cost a substantial amount of money, so the center has resorted to “jury-rigging” it, Greene said.

“We are at the point where we know the repairmen and they know us,” Greene said. “It’s at the point where it’s almost comical.”

But patching the 40-year-old contraption no longer works, Greene said — principally because the parts it needs are no longer manufactured — and, for the last four months, the center has been without an elevator. The center is trying to raise the funds to replace the elevator, but the going has been rough. Thus far, the SESSC has raised a little more than $100,000 via grants but has to come up with another $60,000 to replace the elevator. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the center’s finances and its ability to fundraise. It’s currently seeking donations from the community via a GoFundMe page, but, as of this writing, it’s only managed to secure a little more than $2,000.

Greene told the Emerald that the elevator has a number of problems that have been getting worse over time, despite the repairman’s various patches. For instance, she said, the elevator doors don’t always close, and the elevator cab will no longer stop flush with the floor. Instead, it opens when the cab is several inches below the floor, which is a major tripping hazard for anyone inside it, especially elders. Things have gotten so bad that even though the elevator still technically moves, Greene cannot allow anyone inside it, because it is too dangerous.

“We’ve had staff members get stuck in the elevator, because it wouldn’t … move,” Greene said. “I am laughing about it, but when you think about it, what it actually means — not having an operating elevator — it’s a little scary. And we have been taking some chances, but for safety reasons, we just can’t do it anymore.”

It’s more than just scary and unsafe for many of the center’s elders, though, Greene said. For those who rely on the elevator to get around, it means that they can no longer attend the events at the center that they had relied on for social interaction — and in a pandemic, this means they are more isolated than ever.

The Emerald wrote early last year about the challenges the center’s elders faced, and how many of them had been calling into the center in despair, because they were so lonely during the initial phase of physical distancing. Greene said that those calls have not ceased, particularly now that the pernicious delta variant is on the rise. Choosing not to follow masking mandates and flouting safe practices allows the variant to spread, which means that more and more vulnerable people, including elders, will be stuck inside and alone.

The center has been holding small, masked group classes and activities on all of its floors in an effort to combat this isolation, but because the elevator isn’t working, Greene estimates that at least 10–15 elders per day can no longer access these activities and classes — and those are just the ones who have decided that trying to combat loneliness and isolation is worth the risk of venturing out.

Greene recalled that one particular woman who is wheelchair-bound takes Access Paratransit to get to the center — “she just loves coming, and we love having her here,” Greene said — but now that the elevator is out of commission, she is relegated to the classes and activities on the first floor. The center’s staff has tried to get around such issues by holding classes in the lobby, but because the lobby is small and therefore doesn’t allow for much social distancing, it’s difficult to have many participants.

The center is also now holding its ukelele classes in the garage, but even though that is outside and has enough space for social distancing, that class can only take place for so long in the garage: Right now, the weather is nice enough for elders to be comfortable. But in a few weeks, when the cool, rainy days of autumn hit, that will change.

“We don’t have heaters. We can’t afford to purchase heaters to warm the garage, so we will have to figure something out,” Greene said. “I am keeping my fingers crossed that before we go into … the late fall, early winter, that our elevator will be repaired and we can bring them [the elders] back inside.”

Last March, the center started a hot lunch program for elders who do not otherwise have access to hot meals during quarantine. That program continued throughout the year, and is still going strong about a year-and-a-half later. Currently, the center is serving upwards of 180 people per day, and Greene said that she and the staff are “constantly moving tables” around in the cafeteria area to make room for classes and activities around the lunch prep schedule. Even though it’s difficult to change everything and to try to create other classroom space and the number of participants has decreased even further, due to the elevator being out of order, Greene said that the last thing she and her staff want to do to an elder in need is turn them away, because there would otherwise not be any space for that person’s class or activity.

Greene said that the center is trying to avoid taking out a loan, especially during these uncertain times. But having a working elevator is non-negotiable, so the center is engaging a replacement company’s services. And while the final payment on the elevator replacement is not due until the project is complete, that deadline is not too far out: Greene said that the elevator repair should be done by Thanksgiving.

“If they don’t have access to those classes and activities, that just creates more social isolation, and that is the last thing we want our seniors to be confronted with,” Greene said. “They are still struggling with issues relating to COVID and still at home, because of COVID. And now, adults who are even willing to leave their homes and come to the center — we don’t have capacity to serve them in the way that we want to. And that’s the part that is really heartbreaking for me … because we are unable to provide the level of service to our seniors who need that.”

To donate to the center, visit the GoFundMe page to make a donation. This reporter would specifically like to note that if 10,000 people donated just $6 each, the center would have all the money it needs for the elevator replacement.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer for the South Seattle Emerald. You can reach them here, and check out more of their work here and here.

Featured image courtesy of the Southeast Seattle Senior Center

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