Island seniors finding ways to stay connected

Many are helping seniors stay engaged and active under Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay at home order.

While the Vashon Senior Center has been closed, volunteers are finding ways to connect seniors with what they need and keep them engaged (Courtesy Photo).

While the Vashon Senior Center has been closed, volunteers are finding ways to connect seniors with what they need and keep them engaged (Courtesy Photo).

The Vashon Senior Center has now been closed for more than a month, yet in that time volunteers have worked diligently to stay connected with members in their homes.

Daily activities are hosted on the center’s website, from Zumba to bridge club. Groups have been using the video conferencing platform Zoom to carry out discussion about books and to meditate. Hot meals are delivered Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — lunch bags are stuffed with letters, flowers and candy once a week — and donations are set to help increase the number of meals that can be delivered, feeding even more seniors.

Executive Director Catherine Swearingen said in a recent interview that her primary goal is to help center members stay engaged and active while Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay at home order remains in effect.

“It’s a whole different world out there, but I kind of feel like we’re learning some new tech skills out of this,” she said, commenting on how staff and volunteers are managing to keep in touch with as many of the center’s 700 members as possible. Much of the credit for that effort, Swearingen said, is owed to the more than two dozen volunteers from the company Women Hold the Key, a company founded by islander Tina Shattuck. Swearingen said the callers ask the seniors a number of questions to gauge how they are doing, ranging from whether they have enough to eat or a prescription to refill to fielding questions about hours at island grocery stores and asking seniors how isolated they may feel.

“Some of them are clearly lonesome and want to chat which is totally understandable,” she said. The information the volunteers compile is loaded into a spreadsheet and center staff respond on an individual basis for those who need further assistance.

For her part, Shattuck said the mission of Women Hold the Key is to provide community service — making calls to housebound seniors is not the typical work of a key holder, she said, but the world has changed and so must their service.

“Crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. We just choose to be the best. We want to be Mr. Rogers. We want to be the helpers.”

Shattuck said the response has been great and that most seniors are doing well, adding that many islanders look out for each other already. All volunteers making calls have been background checked.

“These members of our community are the most at risk right now and we need to watch out for them; that’s what we need to do as human beings,” she said, adding that as seniors spend a prolonged amount of time socially distancing, it was crucial for volunteers to continue their calls to connect with them.

“To be seen and to be heard and to be recognized are basic human needs and if at the very least we can do that then I think that’s great,” she said.

That’s important to 84-year-old islander Colleen Brooks, a senior center member, who said that she receives frequent calls from friends and loved ones checking in, wanting to know how she is doing and how her day is going. She said she is appreciative, but that she is starting to miss deeper conversations.

“I think seniors are ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with being alone or being limited in their social interaction because it’s sort of something that’s evolved for us as we get older,” she said, adding that she suspects many seniors feel the same way. “I do appreciate those [check-ins] and I would never want it to sound like it’s insufficient, but it’s very seldom when someone has time to have an in-depth conversation with you.”

Brooks said it is easy to take the outward friendliness of the island for granted, seeing people’s smiles and saying hello.

“Those are the things that are just ordinary here until you don’t have them,” she said. Brooks is writing a memoir and meeting with a senior writing group on Zoom. But she said she is looking forward to returning to the center and socializing with those whose company she has come to greatly appreciate.

“I didn’t realize until it was taken away from me how much a part of my life [the center] was,” she said.


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