Connecticut senior center struggles through COVID-19, but staffers find a way to bring joy in insolation

It has been more than a few weeks since the Tolland Senior Center closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving older members of my community stuck in their homes. When I first decided to call my local senior center, I had been blind to the perspective of what crisis could look like in the eyes of someone more mature and wiser than me. But a 20 minute phone call would change the way I went about my daily life.
Home to over 15,000 people, the small town of Tolland is a very quiet and easy-going place, located on the eastern side of Connecticut. At the time I had conducted my interview, there were zero reported cases in our town. As of April 22, there are 29 confirmed cases.

The senior center provided a healthy and safe option for senior citizens to interact and spend their time together. The center has over 400 people on its membership roster and around 100 patrons who come in daily. The size of the staff, however, does not match up to the number of people they welcome each day. 
I spoke to Head of Operations Fran Weigand and Rebecca Ellert, who is in charge of elderly outreach. These women have been supporting senior citizens for over 22 years now. When I asked how many staff members they had working with them, Weigand answered my question with a calm voice.

“You’re speaking to them,” she said. 

Weigand said the two rely on the seniors to help with running programs. The majority of events are led by volunteers and lunches are even provided by volunteer crews. She is the only one getting paid to support such an amazing opportunity for the seniors of our community. Ellert’s job was completely separate from the center, but her support and efforts have been instrumental as well. 

Many people look forward to springtime. The weather gets nicer and people are out and about more often. Many events occur around this time too, but for the senior center, patrons can no longer look forward to some of the most exciting parts of the year. The seniors who are active and can spend time with others in their own community were pushed into isolation, where some have no form of human contact unless it’s over the phone.
“It is so unfortunate to know that people who come here to interact with others were stuck inside all day because of fear and risk of getting sick,” Ellert said. “We had to cancel some of our largest events because of what is going on.”
Every year in April, Tolland High School hosts the senior center’s largest fundraiser, where local seniors and hired professionals participate in the Annual Senior Variety Show. For the first time in 31 years, the talent show is canceled due to the virus.

Weigand said it was an enthusiastic event for the seniors and she pointed out how important the event was for the seniors and the center itself.
“Those who didn’t participate loved to watch and support the acts. We would fill up the auditorium with about 500 people and enjoy the entertainment. It was one of our largest fundraisers we held all year, so it is hard to know it won’t happen…”
Weigand and Ellert also make sure to go the extra mile by celebrating their seniors’ birthdays. They were unable to celebrate March because they were cut short.

The challenge now is to make sure these senior citizens are still taken care of. Rather than waiting for the phone to ring, the two have been reaching out to everyone on their roster each day. During these calls, they check in on their seniors to make sure everything is alright. This is especially because the elderly are more susceptible to becoming sick, so they are especially encouraged to isolate at home. Weigand and Ellert are able to keep them company, even if it is just over the phone.
“Our mission is to give these people a purpose,” Weigand said. “We want them to have a reason to wake up and look forward to spending time with others and communicating. The relationships I have seen blossom here have just been amazing.”

The two plan on giving a concert door to door for seniors once the madness starts to slow down. They chuckled over the phone and called it porch caroling.

Aside from the senior center, both Weigand and Ellert have had changes in their personal lives as well. Ellert has four children, three of whom were unemployed because of the virus.
“We are very honorable to social distancing and we Zoom call any time we can to check in on each other,” Ellert said. “Looks like college students aren’t the only ones using Zoom.”

Weigand has three kids and seven grandchildren, all living in different states. The space is comforting to her.

“It’s a good thing they don’t live near me because it would kill me if I could not see my grandchildren,” Weigand said. “The main thing we need to do is be sick and tired of washing our hands.”
According to Weigand and Ellert, although some of the seniors say they are healthy, something like this can take a toll on one’s mental health. That is why they are taking the extra step to make these calls. The dedication of these two women is far beyond measurable. I could hear the amount of concern they had in their voices, but there was also some wisdom to be granted my way as well.
As a college student, days feel like minutes because of how much we have going on day to day. When I mentioned how stressful moving out and transitioning to online classes was, while being stuck at home all at the same time, they told me one simple thing.