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Helping Senior Centers Come Back From the COVID-19 Crisis

San Diego’s regional senior support network is in critical condition

Last week we brought together senior center directors from all over San Diego County for a virtual conference to discuss the needs and challenges they are facing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Senior centers county-wide are shuttered and have been reduced to providing minimal services or, in many cases, no services at all.

For a foundation whose primary focus has been to revitalize senior centers and reimagine the role they could play in the lives of our aging population, the coronavirus pandemic has been eye-opening, to say the least. At a time when more seniors than ever are socially isolated and cut off from their families with limited access to services, our regional senior support network has been kneecapped.

Senior centers, like nearly every other aspect of public life, will forever be changed by the pandemic. Before COVID-19, outreach to homebound elders was an aspirational goal that understaffed senior centers could barely attempt. Now it must be their primary focus. In order to stay relevant and achieve their mission, institutions that serve older adults must adapt programs in innovative ways to reach isolated individuals who have no one else to turn to.

We’ve seen some bright spots. Around the county, senior centers that formerly offered congregate meals have transitioned to pick-up and home-delivery options. Other centers that have the capacity are doing check-in calls with their clients. In Chula Vista, one tech-savvy volunteer is providing daily training sessions to help seniors learn how to use Zoom. And some well-resourced centers have started transitioning programs online, so seniors can continue to stay engaged and active while stuck at home.

In order to stay relevant and achieve their mission, institutions that serve older adults must adapt programs in innovative ways to reach isolated individuals who have no one else to turn to.

But the hard reality is that most senior centers are hanging on by a thread. They were already understaffed and underfunded before the pandemic hit. Now, as revenue sources evaporate and municipal budgets are slashed, senior center directors are having to lay off staff and there is a real possibility that some local centers will not be able to reopen. This would be a tragedy for older adults in San Diego—a population that is expected to grow rapidly in coming years.

Even before COVID-19, most seniors wished to age in place rather than spending their golden years in care facilities. Now, as the virus has tragically spread through retirement homes, we expect more seniors to put off moving for as long as possible, making the services provided through community senior centers more vital than ever.

At the San Diego Seniors Community Foundation, we are working to address this crisis. In addition to raising funds, we believe part of the solution to keeping our older adult support network alive is to establish a team of regional community coordinators who can build partnerships, coordinate with senior service agencies, organize volunteers, and direct vital resources to senior centers. We need leaders who will catalyze action around senior centers so they can continue to serve vulnerable elders both during the COVID-19 crisis and long into the future.

The crisis of socially isolated seniors is not a new one—one in four people over age 65 is at risk of becoming an “elder orphan” with no family to care for them. If there is a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that it has shone a spotlight on this overlooked population. As a society, we must take care of our elders, and to do that we must protect and reinvest in our community senior centers. If you would like to help, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to our San Diego Seniors Coronavirus Recovery Fund. Together we can ensure that every senior has someone they can turn to and trust.

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