When describing the ability of the city’s senior center to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, administrator Jackie Chavez-Anderson spoke plainly.
“We’ve gotten by on a wing and a prayer,” she said.
But it’s been much, much more than that.
Continuing to serve an at-risk population since the virus started to make its presence felt in March has been a daunting task. To do so while the senior center itself, 28114 Lorain Road, has been closed for most of the year made it even more daunting. As the calendar flipped to 2021, the building was still closed to residents.
Chavez-Anderson and her staff, consisting of outreach coordinator Tiffany Hunt and activities coordinator Beth Reitz, have done everything they can to make sure the city’s seniors know they’re not forgotten. In the process, Anderson has overseen a complete shift in the way the center operates and corresponds with its patrons.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride, and it’s forced us to break out of the mold,” she said. “It’s not easy to do, but when it’s necessary, you dig down deep and make it happen. And it’s just what we had to do.”
Once the senior center shut down in mid-March, Chavez-Anderson’s first priority was figuring out how to keep people safe, then how to distribute meals to city seniors with limited contact. In 2019, the facility provided nearly 6,000 lunches, put together by an in-house nutritionist.
One solution was partnering with local assisted-living facilities like O’Neill Healthcare and Brookdale Senior Living to provide drive-through meal distribution. Such events, the most recent of which took place in December, brought 50 people to the senior center lot.
The next frontier Chavez-Anderson and her staff tackled was the digital divide.
Over the course of 2019, well before the pandemic took hold, the senior center was a hub of activity, with 500 residents taking part in on-site programs ranging from movie viewings to card games to lectures and book clubs. Before the calendar turned to 2020, there were 13,000 event sign-ups.
With the building closed from March until Sept. 28, when it briefly reopened before an increase in COVID cases throughout the county forced it to close again Oct. 15, the need arose to fill some sort of event schedule. Working with a population not considered as tech-savvy, Chavez Anderson decided the best course of action was to take programming virtual, easing seniors along as they navigated the process of signing up for events that took place over meeting apps like Zoom or FaceTime.
“It took patience. It started slow,” Chavez-Anderson said. “There was certainly a trickle (with online sign-ups). Then a trickle turned into a stream, then hopefully it will turn into a wave. Since (the pandemic) has dragged on longer than I think anyone anticipated, it kind of forced their hand. Early on, they didn’t want to do things virtually. But the longer they had to wait and saw that it was one of the only ways to engage, they were kind of forced, but now they’re getting used to it. It’s like anything else — you have to crawl before you can walk, and then you’re running.”
Along with programs such as weekly virtual bingo and a virtual book club, there are Geri-Fit and yoga classes conducted over Zoom and even a “Senior Strong” support group that meets weekly over Zoom. Chavez-Anderson has also begun posting two senior center newsletters per month, and created a virtual bulletin board to advertise programming.
If seniors couldn’t socialize inside the building itself, Chavez-Anderson helped bring programming outdoors in recent months. In August, she helped put on “Beach Blanket Boogie Bingo,” which drew 20 participants. Using the center’s location next to North Olmsted Community Park, a “Winter Walkers” club was started, in which seniors can register to take a weekly stroll on the recently completed walking path that wraps around the park. There are a growing number of registrants for that program.
Building on the success of drive-through meals, Chavez-Anderson partnered with O’Neill and Brookdale again to pass out Christmas cookie decorating kits in December. Chavez-Anderson also set up the senior center lobby as the “Lending Lobby,” where people who pre-register can come in and borrow items such as puzzles to take home.
“I’m proud of everything we’ve done,” she said. “Everything we could think of we tried to do. We threw everything we had at this just to get people engaged. I think what we’ve done is innovative. We had to be pioneers, kind of.”
Working with North Olmsted seniors is personal to Chavez-Anderson, a labor of love. A lifelong city resident and North Olmsted High School graduate, she earned degrees in social work from Cleveland State University and in mental health from the University of Toledo. She was the center’s activities coordinator for 17 years before taking over as the administrator four years ago.
“North Olmsted is where my heart is,” she said. “It was a no-brainer that when I got an opportunity to work at the senior center, I jumped at it. It’s always been ingrained in me to help other people as much as I can, and to be able to help people in the community that made me who I am today is even better. Who can ask for anything more?”
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