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Senior centers use technology to adapt offerings during closure

  • The Senior Center in Shelburne Falls adapted its biweekly memoir writing class to a virtual setting so it could continue meeting during the COVID-19-related closure of the center. CONTRIBUTED Image

Staff Writer
Published: 5/22/2020 3:31:56 PM
Modified: 5/22/2020 3:31:43 PM

When she retired in 2012, Nicole Graves made a point of participating in her local senior center.

“Now that I was an elder, it was time to participate in such things,” she recalled telling herself. “I mostly go for lunch, but it’s not for the food; it’s for the people.”

Graves became active at the South County Senior Center as a way to avoid isolating herself from the community, she said. In addition to going to lunch about three times a week, the South Deerfield resident participates in special events — speakers or movie screenings, for example.

But now, with the Senior Center closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, she doesn’t have as many opportunities to see people she once saw on a semi-regular basis.

“We have curbside pick-up (at the center) … but, of course, we just kind of wave at one another,” Graves said. “We haven’t had a chance to talk.”

Graves isn’t the only one who misses the socialization. Because of that, senior centers across Franklin County have found ways to continue or start new programming in their communities.

“They miss being able to come here, to see their friends,” said South County Senior Center Director Christina Johnson.

Johnson said since the center closed, she has been trying to think of programs seniors can get involved in that help them to feel more connected.

One of those ideas was to host a Zoom video conference call for the seniors. She advertised it in the center’s monthly newsletter and on Facebook, and also passed it along by word of mouth.

Recently, a handful of seniors participated in the center’s first Zoom “meeting” — and while it was sparsely attended, it was appreciated by the few who did participate.

“Since we haven’t really seen each other or talked to each other since we’ve been in (quarantine), it was an opportunity to talk and see how we were doing,” Graves said.

Both Graves and Johnson said the main challenge with communicating by video conference is the hesitation or unfamiliarity many seniors have with technology.

“It would be easier to show them in person, but, of course, we can’t do that,” Johnson said.

Graves, who had some prior experience using Zoom, said she gave Johnson a few tips for the next video conference call, namely to email people in advance with clear instructions on how to join.

“I’m sure we’ll have more people next time,” Graves said, adding that she already knew a few friends who would be interested in joining a future call.

Over in Shelburne Falls, the Senior Center found a way to continue its memoir writing class using Zoom.

“The people in the group are amazing writers,” said Karen Earle, who runs the class. “They’ve all had very interesting lives. They’re solidly good writers and supportive of one another.”

Earle said the group is a mix of writers who have lived in the community for generations, and writers who have lived all over the country.

The class began in January 2015, and prior to the Senior Center closing because of the pandemic, it met every other week. Now, it meets weekly on Fridays.

“The (connection) is the primary reason I decided to keep it going, because most people in the group live alone or with a partner,” she said.

Since the center’s closure, Earle said members of the class have been writing even more than before.

On the less technological side, South County Senior Center has collaborated with Sunderland Elementary School to create a pen pal program. As many as 30 seniors and 30 students are involved.

“This was like coming back to my youth … I had many, many, many pen pals starting in the fifth grade, all through high school,” recalled Graves, who also participates in the program.

Graves said she replied almost immediately to her pen pal’s first letter. In their first exchange, they talked about their daily routines, their family, pets — past and present — and if the other likes baking.

Speaking to other seniors, Graves said if you’re feeling isolated, reach out to your local senior center.

“Just pick up the phone and call,” she said. “That’s how you get to find out that maybe there are things you can do. … The worst thing is to just sit and watch TV.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at

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