The pandemic has changed how people socialize. For an older generation not used to the advantages of technology, being stuck at home might seem like a prison sentence.
Director of Senior Services Deborah Huff and her staff at the Rocky River Senior Center are working to change that by offering several programs to keep the community connected and engaged.
“The pandemic completely upended how we ran our whole program,” Huff said. “Social isolation can be extremely dangerous to our members, so we needed to find new ways to stay active and connected.”
Instead of finding a way to meet in person, Huff took the Senior Center virtual. In March, the center, which serves about 3,000 seniors in the community, began offering online seminars through Zoom. They included classes in art, exercise and history — and even a class on how to use Zoom.
The pandemic also affected how senior citizens got necessities. As a result, the organization expanded its delivery of essential items such as food, medicine and books to keep seniors entertained. The group’s social services program has shot up by 400% since March, Huff said.
Huff also oversaw the creation of the center’s Silver Linings Cafe at the Rocky River Senior Center. The cafe offered seniors the chance to come in and use the center’s computers while they enjoy coffee during scheduled appointments.
“Huff and her staff went above and beyond to provide service to seniors throughout the community during the pandemic,” said Safety Service Director Rich Snyder. The center also had a giving tree that offered free masks to those in need throughout the year, he added.
In September, the senior center reopened and held events such as concerts, a fall festival and a Halloween contest. The organization also delivered more than 160 holiday baskets to seniors who would not be able to see their families.
The efforts of Huff and her staff come at a critical time. For adults age 50 or older, social isolation was associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia. Isolation or loneliness was also associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Isolation is not good for anybody and some studies in older adults showed it is the equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day,” said Huff, 59. “In order to keep our seniors happy and healthy, it’s important to give them that connection. Especially during the pandemic.”
A Rocky River resident for six years, Huff moved here when she accepted the job overseeing the center. Before that, she worked as the director of community services for Bay Village for 10 years. For most of her life, she lived in North Olmsted, where she raised her children Kimberly, 33, and Tim, 29.
Despite her extensive experience looking after older adults, Huff did not expect to make a career out of it. She was born in 1961 to Ronald and Nancy Huff and was raised in North Olmsted. Her father worked as a rocket scientist for NASA and her mother was a nurse for Southwest General Health Center in Middleburg Heights and Joshua Tree Care Center in North Olmsted.
Inspired by her father, she wanted to become a researcher and study the connection between humans and apes. However, due to a mixup at the school, she instead studied child psychology and counselling at The University of Akron. Eventually she got a job working with children living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When I was growing up, I would help my mother while she worked as a nurse for the elderly,” Huff said. “She would tell me who needed help and I would go keep them company and talked to them, which really fostered my love to help others.”
In 2002, she was hired by Mayor Norman Musial as the administrator for the division of aging in North Olmsted for two years. Now she oversees one of the Westshore’s largest senior programs. The community center helps residents from Rocky River, Lakewood, Westlake and Avon. It’s also seen people from as far as Wooster and Youngstown participate in its programs and events, Huff said.
While the center closed again before Thanksgiving due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, Huff hopes to have it open to the public again on Feb. 1. Once opened, the center plans on having a drive-through chili cookoff where residents can sample chili and vote online for their favorites. It also plans to host more concerts in the spring and summer.
“A lot of people really haven’t embraced positive aging up until this point, so seniors were tucked away in the corner,” she said. “Rocky River really wanted to support the seniors in our community and let them know they’re valued here.”
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