Stuart Lahn, who turned 80 last month, had gotten used to going to a senior center on the Upper West Side. He took singing classes there, played bridge, listened to live jazz concerts. The participants ate breakfast and lunch together.
Then the center, operated by the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, closed in March during the statewide coronavirus shutdown. That hurt its elderly members, especially those less tech-savvy, who don’t have computers or know how to get on Zoom. “They miss being in-person,” Lahn said.
About 250 senior centers and community affiliates in New York City have shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Although the city has reopened its restaurants, gyms and schools, it has set no definitive timetable to reopen senior centers. Officials say they are staying vigilant; the centers, experiencing financial pressure and service disruptions, have criticized their indecisiveness.
At a City Council meeting last month, council members pressured the Department of Aging to reopen senior centers. Council Member Mark Gjonaj said that “we kept seniors prisoners in their own home.”
Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez of the Department of Aging pledged to have a plan by November 1.
But Gjonaj fears that, “come November, we will say it is too cold, and push it off until spring.” He told the Commissioner “the entire council will be behind you as you reopen these senior centers.”
Dina Montes, a spokesperson for the Department of Aging, said the health and safety of elderly New Yorkers is its top priority. It wants more guidance from the city health department before setting an official reopening date. According to the CDC, eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the United States have occurred in adults 65 and older.
Many centers are now offering virtual programs, including 170 online classes, Montes said.
“Almost all former center attendees now have some virtual component where they’re having classes, or for those who are not as comfortable, telephone classes,” said Katelyn Andrews, director of public policy for LiveOn NY, which represents seniors and their centers.
But going online cannot replace in-person meetings. Only 26% of seniors say that they are confident using electronic devices, a Pew Research Center study found in 2017; 73% of seniors say that they need help using electronic devices.
“The older the senior, the less involved they are with technology,” Lahn said. He can Zoom, and said he’s busier than before the pandemic, communicating with people who are not online with phone calls and scheduling socially distanced in-person walks in Central Park.
To ensure older adults are safe, LiveOn NY staff have made over a million wellness calls. “They have been checking in all the time, making sure the older adults are okay and that they’re receiving food,” Andrews said.
But lack of funding is straining senior centers. “The budget is less than one half of 1% of the overall city budget, despite the fact that older adults are a rapidly increasing population,” Andrews said.
Though centers are historically underfunded, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. “The mayor made a promise of $10 million for the senior center service portfolio and that did not end up being funded,” she added.
Some senior centers are also experiencing disruptions in meal deliveries. “It hasn’t been easy,” said Karen Zhou, director of Homecrest Community Services. Serving Asian seniors in Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay two meals a day through its Meals on Wheels program, Zhou’s center has exhausted funds from the Department of Aging and now relies on donations and private funds.
Despite their best efforts, centers dependent on funding from the Department of Aging find meal providers’ services unstable and sometimes culturally insensitive.
At the City Council hearing, Shaaranya Pillai of India Home, which serves South Asian seniors in Sunnyside and Jamaica, Queens, recalled that over 100 seniors didn’t receive meals during Ramadan fasting because caterers halted services, claiming they were not getting paid.
David Lee, 67, who went to a Homecrest senior center on New Utrecht Avenue, was scared to go out for groceries for months. “I was so worried I couldn’t sleep a wink,” Lee said in Cantonese. Seeing neighbors being carried out of their homes into ambulances, and being shut inside his house left him feeling helpless. He felt lucky that Homecrest could deliver Chinese meals six days a week from March to May, to lower his chances of contracting the virus.
More than six months into the pandemic, fear about the dangers of isolation for older adults persists. Last year, the National Institute on Aging published a paper stating that social isolation and loneliness can pose health risks for older people. Researchers have linked social isolation and loneliness to risks of higher blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death.
Lee now joins singing and bingo sessions virtually through Homecrest. Lahn watches concerts, plays bridge and joins yoga and drama classes on Zoom. “It’s not a big problem for me,” Lahn said of the centers’ closure. For others, however, “it hurt very clearly.”
“We know that isolation is a greater risk of mortality in men than smoking cigarettes,” Andrews said.
Without a timeline for reopening senior centers, Zhou said seniors have mixed feelings about their reopening. “Some are very eager to go back because they haven’t seen their friends and staff in the center for a while,” she said. “But some are very cautious and are taking extra precautions.”
“It is safer to not open until they are 90% sure everything is safe. Of course many of us want it to open soon so we can see each other,” Lee said. “But if there’s an invisible spreader among us, it is just not worth it.”
(Photo of Stuart Lahn and Ilse Polak, 93, courtesy of Stuart Lahn. Their senior center, operated by Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, has been shuttered since March.)