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'I feel alive again': LI seniors, cut off amid COVID-19, are back on the road to normalcy

Staff members at the Glen Cove Senior Center

Staff members at the Glen Cove Senior Center and Suffolk Literacy speak about how they are looking forward to returning to the way things were before COVID-19, and putting the challenges of working remotely behind them. Credit: Morgan Campbell, Corey Sipkin

Lost in the tumult of school closings and remote work that abruptly ended normal life in March 2020 were the retirees and elderly wrenched from routines built around volunteer work, adult education and senior centers.

Programs were closed to nonstaff or shifted online. Vulnerable seniors opted to isolate at home. Days once filled with activity and purpose were left empty.

Now, with most restrictions ending and with vaccinations in arms, senior citizens have reason to hope. Senior centers have begun reopening, some with limitations, and retirees are starting to reappear in some hospitals, not as patients but to greet them, and to staff the gift shops as volunteers once again.

What to know

To date, most senior citizen centers on Long Island have reopened, or plan to reopen, with only limited capacity and hours for in-person activities. Over the last year, centers shifted to online programming and home-delivered meals.

As of May 11, 74% of Suffolk County residents 65 and older and 77% of Nassau residents in that age group were fully vaccinated. 

Long Island’s population is getting older, statistics show. A 2018 analysis by Nassau County found that between 2000 and 2016, there was an 11% increase in residents older than 65 in the county. In Suffolk, those 65 and older were 13.5% of the population in 2010, and over 17% by 2019. 

Source: KFF analysis of CDC and census data

Dozens of unmasked elderly celebrants turned out for "Music, Food, & Fun!" under blue tents at Glen Cove Senior Center’s Welcome Back Picnic in a park earlier this month. When Rudy Francisco, 75, and his wife, Helen, 78, of Glen Cove, got notice in April that the center would move from digital programming to in-person at 40% participation, they quickly signed up.

"I looked at my wife and we’re jumping with joy. Thanks, God," he said. "It’s really mind-blowing to have to stay in the house. I don’t like the feeling, like you are in a bubble that you can’t get out of."

"They were very distraught," Marisa Plotkin, volunteer services coordinator at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, said of its senior volunteers when they were told the hospital would close to them in the early months of the pandemic last year. "They took it hardest. It was a safe place to go and feel valued every day."

Elderly retirees who have been able to resume their volunteer work already are joyful and relieved. Marylou Krzeski, 86, of Lindenhurst, a longtime volunteer with Literacy Suffolk, was allowed back into its Bellport office in October to answer phones and do office work once a week. Even that limited schedule has made a difference.

"I feel alive again, I feel useful again," said the retired insurance company account executive. "That’s the important thing, you can’t feel like you are a tile on the floor waiting for something to happen. They do appreciate me. I know they do because they keep saying it, but the big thing is it does make me feel useful."

Gradual reopenings

The elderly are particularly vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19 and were among the first people eligible for the vaccines. Organizations, however, continue to be cautious, reopening to volunteers and activities slowly and in phases over the past and coming weeks. The pace may now quicken with more restrictions lifted.

The four senior centers in the Town of Babylon resumed activities at normal capacity more than a week ago in anticipation of the restrictions being lifted, town spokesman Kevin Bonner said. With high vaccination rates among the elderly, masking was left as a personal choice, he said, adding, "We’re encouraging unvaccinated people to wear a mask, but not requiring it."

The 15 centers funded and run by Nassau County will lift restrictions in July. And while others may soon follow, for now the towns of Brookhaven, Smithtown and Islip have announced limited in-person indoor activities to resume next month.

Many libraries have yet to fully open, tutoring programs that teach classes in them are still teaching via FaceTime, and many nonprofits have yet to post new volunteer opportunities.

Diana O’Neill, Long Island Volunteer Center board member and retired executive director, said nonprofits are closely watching for guidance on how to do so safely, but "unfortunately, it is not spelled out" and therefore, "each program is deciding on what is safe for their own program." Volunteers have started calling for spots, but postings are still not back to normal. "The answer is not now, but soon, soon."

Susan Shiloni, director of Literacy Suffolk, said about 65% of its volunteers are seniors. Some continued to tutor remotely; others were waiting to come back in person. "We tutor in the library, and libraries aren’t ready to start it up again," she said. "We’re hoping we can start next month."

Many food programs, however, continued to rely on masked and socially distanced volunteers at their warehouses, pantries and soup kitchens, as demand for food rose during the pandemic. Island Harvest volunteers sorted and packaged warehouse donations and assisted at off-site food collections and distributions, spokesman Don Miller said. Those staying at home could stuff envelopes and make phone calls.

Connections through education

Adult education classes survived the pandemic with online and virtual classrooms. But as with young students, the digital experience has worn thin for seniors.

Prior to the pandemic, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI, had more than 1,000 dues-paying members aged 50 and older who led and attended hundreds of workshops in on-campus classes at Stony Brook University. Membership now has fallen by hundreds after months of Zoom workshops, and some are fearful the university has become less welcoming to the program, which it runs through its School of Professional Development.

Breanne Delligatti, its director, said in a statement, however, "OLLI is a primarily on-campus program. If a workshop is held off-campus, it is to connect OLLI members to the local community. We are planning to make our on-campus workshop program even more robust than it was prior to the pandemic."

That would be welcome news to Joan Fortgang, 83, of Port Jefferson, who has been attending OLLI workshops "since the day I retired in 2000," she said.

"I just take a lot of workshops, from soup to nuts," from music and current events to memoir writing, poetry and stained glass, she said, adding, "I’ll tell you the truth, I think OLLI keeps a lot of us young and alert. It keeps our minds going. Good friendships have been made. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’d hate to see it disappear."

Jeffrey Miller, 69, of Merrick, said that after a year of tutoring via FaceTime, he can’t wait to begin next month teaching full classes in person for Literacy Nassau. "Everybody is happier. I’m happier, the students are happier, in person," he said.

'You go home with your soul filled up'

Hospitals that abruptly sent volunteers home when COVID-19 patients first flooded their floors are slowly phasing them back in. NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola, where prior to the pandemic 104 of its 430 volunteers were 65 or older, will bring back 102 volunteers on July 1. Stony Brook University Hospital will bring back a limited number of volunteers aged 18 and older, also next month.

Retired nurse Ronnie Chusid, 75, of Old Westbury, will be able to return soon to cuddle newborns at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.

"It’s such a great, great job," she said. "You go home with your soul filled up. During COVID, I was pretty much not able to do much of anything. My kids worried about me being outside the house. I just missed it terribly."

Lisa Breiman, director of the volunteer program at North Shore University Hospital, said hospitals had to assess needs and process volunteers before fully opening their doors. "It will take a little time to get them back," she said. "It’s like starting from scratch. I think all areas of the hospital are anxious to welcome them back."

Adrienne Lieberman, 77, a retired events planner from Port Washington, is already back at North Shore greeting and assisting patients. "It's great, it's wonderful," said Lieberman, who acted as a liaison to patients’ caregivers by phone over the past year. "I feel I get back more than I give."

The Catholic Health system initially will welcome back a quarter of its senior volunteers, spokesman Alida Almonte-Giannini said. "We’re bringing them back safely," volunteer manager Liz Schwind said. "They have to be physically cleared. There is a process."

Among the first to return was Suzanne Sprague, 76, a retired nurse from Massapequa who is again escorting ambulatory surgery patients to operating rooms at St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage two days a week. She recently also resumed ferrying elderly patients to doctor's appointments for her church two days a week, while helping once a week since September, with restrictions, at a Hempstead soup kitchen.

"During COVID, everyone was isolated, and it was very difficult, so I am so very happy to be back to work," Sprague said about the hospital. "In a way, it is a job. Even though it is only two days a week, it keeps me connected to patients, even the workers there. It’s really nice to interact with other people."

She added, "Talking on the telephone is one thing, seeing someone in person is a whole other thing and that’s what we missed so much."

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