Grafton County senior centers battled the risks of clientele isolation for years. COVID made the fight more complicated.
Linda Hall, 67, is less mobile than she used to be. It's not exactly by choice. Hall's respiratory issues make her vulnerable to a severe case of COVID-19. The Grafton County resident still hasn’t returned to church in person.
“It’s been hard,” she said. One of her sons is dying of kidney failure, and in February, she lost her grandson. Without regular access to independent transportation, Hall tries to stay connected to friends over the phone.
As the pandemic ebbs, Hall is one of the thousands of local residents trying to reunite with her community as an active member of her local senior center.
In this region, over one in five residents is over the age of 65, higher than the state average. There are eight senior centers that are part of the Grafton County Senior Citizens' Council network. Council staff had to adjust or pause some popular services that kept clientele connected amidst the pandemic. But not all of them.
For two decades, Hall has participated in the senior center’s Meals on Wheels program, where she receives home-delivered food. While those deliveries have continued throughout the pandemic, she’s missed the June yard sale, and other favorite events held at Horse Meadow Senior Center in North Haverhill.
Like Hall, some residents have adapted to living without many of the centers’ services, but it’s been isolating. In such a rural area, it’s not always easy to get around – especially if you don’t drive or have access to a car.
Hall even stopped using the senior center's bus service because she thought others might need it more than she did. She reasoned not everyone would have a son to call if they needed a ride. She didn’t want to take up a seat on the bus when capacity restrictions were still in place.
And in the pandemic's first year, the senior center’s bus service didn’t operate. When it started running again in the spring of 2021, capacity was reduced to allow for social distancing. It didn't return to normal operations until March of 2022.
But even though the service is back to full operation, bus driver Ron Reed is not as busy as he used to be. Two years ago, the bus was often full.
“We used to pick up four or five people at a time,” Reed recalled. On the day NHPR visited, he drove a total of four people. One of them was Nancy Simmons, who needed transportation to a bone density test. The bus service took care of it.
To get her, Reed drove for miles down a dirt road in the tiny community of Pike early in the morning. He expertly navigated muddy potholes, while he recalled people who recently got stuck on the road.
“Ron [Reed] has been very helpful getting me to these appointments and stuff,” she said. “We couldn't do without him.”
Simmons represents a typical bus rider these days, according to Reed.
Fewer residents are using the service for shopping trips to the local Walmart or visits to the hairdresser. It’s hard to know if residents are still forgoing those trips, or if they’ve found new modes of transportation from family members or others.
But visits to the senior center are starting to pick up. Horse Meadow Senior Center has been slowly offering more in-person events like its bi-weekly bone builders class. Masks are required and capacity is still limited, but the center had more interest in the class than they could accommodate.
As many residents are vaccinated, the senior center network is starting to facilitate more in-person events.
Last Tuesday, the Horse Meadow restarted its beloved congregate lunches for the first time since the pandemic began. In 2019, around 17,000 meals were served at these lunches, an average of 65 per day.
For many residents, the lunch was more than just lunch. It was an opportunity to see friends and get out of the house. And while the center offered grab-and-go lunches, and continued its Meals on Wheels program, they’ve been serving less food overall. Grab-and-go didn’t meet the same social need the congregate lunches did.
In restarting events, “we’re considering the isolation and depression factor and balancing that with the need to keep people safe [from COVID],” Kathleen Vasconcelos, Grafton County Senior Citizens Council’s executive director, said.
Vasconcelos had to balance those needs early in the pandemic with the Meals on Wheels Program, which never stopped running in the region. People qualify for the program based on age, income or disability. Demand spiked when the state was under a stay-at-home order.
But Horse Meadow did make some changes to the program to reduce transmission of the virus. In the pandemic's earliest days, volunteers stopped delivering daily hot meals, and gave residents more frozen food to last the week. They switched their in-person “safety” checks to mostly over the phone. But quickly, the importance of daily delivery became apparent.
Client Tammy Reynolds Paquin said a recent in-person safety check was critical for her. She’d had a spell of bad health and had passed out. A Meals on Wheels volunteer was there and helped her onto the couch.
“I don't remember going down, but I remember being picked up,” she said.
She asks Maureen Platt-Russell, the agency leader driving the delivery route NHPR joined, to thank the volunteer who supported her.
Platt-Russell’s route has 15 stops. Most are permanent residents of the area, but a few are experiencing homelessness and were referred to the agency through adult protective services. They stay in temporary housing or the local motel. Many people are receiving multiple meals.
Going from home to home it’s clear Platt-Russell does more than just drop off meals. She knows who leaves their door unlocked, expecting her to waltz right in. She knows who prefers she wait outside, who has a cat that can’t be let out, and who has outdoor cats.
For many residents, the wellness check isn’t just a confirmation they haven’t fainted, or worse. Talking with Platt-Russell is also a critical social interaction.
But now, if senior citizens across Grafton County are ready to venture out again, Horse Meadow Senior Center is ready to help them do it.