To bring back Smithtown seniors who stopped visiting the town Senior Center during the pandemic, town officials are calling to catch up and remind them of center offerings such as a new bingo machine.
In 2019, before the pandemic struck, the center counted 1,260 participants; it now has 648, according to Doreen Perrino, program director. Bingo, offered since the 1970s and one of the most popular activities, drew about 283 players monthly before the pandemic but now averages 157. Some clubs consolidated because of low attendance, she said.
"COVID really hit this population," Perrino told Newsday. "The people who are here really want to be here, and there are people who have not come back who want to stay home," she said. Some of those seniors may have family and friends in the area, but "we would love to hear from them," she said.
Expanded programming includes a knitting club. Popular events like the St. Patrick's Day luncheon, canceled last year, are back with limited seating.
Even as COVID numbers drop, seniors face a high stakes decision as they decide whether to return. "There’s a constant risk-benefit that I see my patients weighing," said Maria Carney, Northwell Health's chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine. "This population of older adults has been very frightened by COVID and they’ve often been very affected by the isolation." She recommends vaccinations, boosters and masks for people visiting senior centers.
Dianne Stone, who leads the National Council on Aging’s National Institute of Senior Centers, said seniors are gradually returning. Her message: "If the doors are open, it’s safe to come home to your senior center, because they’ve figured out what they need to do to maximize safety."
By late December, according to New York State’s Office for the Aging, all 16 senior centers in Nassau County were open and 24 of 30 in Suffolk. Officials in Babylon and East Hampton said attendance was down slightly from pre-pandemic numbers. A representative for North Hempstead, which does not operate a senior center, said requests through its Project Independence program, which offers seniors a variety of virtual and in-person services, jumped 10% from 2019 to 2021.
Like municipal facilities across Long Island, Smithtown's center closed to the public in March 2020. Workers continued services like meal deliveries to homebound seniors but the building did not reopen until last June.
The center now operates at reduced capacity. Seating is limited to five people at the large round tables spread across the meeting hall. Building staff do deep cleanings and an HVAC overhaul is planned. When Gov. Kathy Hochul dropped the state mask requirement the center did too, and about 90% of visitors are unmasked now, Perrino said. The center, like most in the state, does not have a vaccination requirement.
"I haven’t seen the faces that I had seen before," said Pat Scollo, 80, a retired art teacher and bingo regular who won $6.25 at a recent game. She is vaccinated and believed some seniors were staying away from the center "because so many people" aren’t.
She sat near the bingo machine, which Perrino had bought with her own money for $125. It looked professional, using forced air to jumble numbered pingpong-sized balls. An electric display board with illuminated numbers meant the hard of hearing no longer had to ask neighbors which numbers have been called.
Scollo said it was money well spent. "It’s a start. It’s a little incentive."
Smithtown data points
One in five residents 65 or older
31,209 COVID cases
Hamlet vaccination rates 71% to 77%
Sources: Census, Suffolk County