KENAI — After losing his wife 14 months ago to cancer, 74-year-old Mickey Bowen needed to socialize.
That’s where the Nikiski Senior Center came in.
Although he and his wife had frequented the center for around eight years, losing her at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic made him all the more starved for human connection, Bowen said.
They met when Bowen was just 16, and were married for 54 years. The senior center, he said, helped him get some of that connection back.
“This has been a lifesaver,” he said.
Sasha Fallon, the executive director of the Nikiski Senior Center, said she’s seen seniors suffer from depression and isolation, particularly when the facility was forced into near shutdown, as COVID-19 continues to circulate through the community.
“Our seniors need that socialization,” Fallon said.
She took the position as executive director in December 2020 as Alaska was experiencing the peak of its first COVID surge.
Before she made the switch to the Nikiski Senior Center, she was working with Consumer Direct Care Network Alaska in Kenai. She said working with the seniors there during the first few months of the pandemic made one thing abundantly clear: the seniors craved face-to-face connection.
“It was made very relevant to me that we weren’t able to provide the best services without seeing our clients,” Fallon said.
The Nikiski Senior Center closed during the first COVID-19 wave. It is now reopened and operating at nearly business as usual, although people are still encouraged to mask and distance if they’re able and willing.
Bowen said he enjoys having lunch at the Nikiski Senior Center, and likes participating in popcorn and movie nights. As a widower, he said spending time with others helps lift everyone’s spirits.
“The social life to me is the important thing,” he said. “It’s really a blessing for us old people.”
Bernice “Bernie” Titera, another member of the Nikiski Senior Center, said she has practiced a lot of caution during the pandemic to avoid coming down with the virus. She said her cancer diagnosis puts her at high risk.
The 77-year-old has taken advantage of the meal delivery service option, but said she now tries to eat lunch once or twice a week in person. The food at the Nikiski Senior Center is some of her favorite in town, she said.
“We’re very grateful for the fact that it has opened up again,” she said. “There’s just a real warm environment at the senior center, it feels like.”
Titera used to teach a yoga class at the center, but said she has taken a step back during the pandemic. She also said she has frequently participated in painting classes, but the last year and a half has proved challenging.
“It was like the social spot was the post office,” Titera said. “I don’t know how anybody could have gotten away from that isolation.”
Loretta Spalding, the executive director of the Soldotna Senior Center, said the facility is still operating with an abundance of caution in terms of COVID mitigation.
“I would say we are in high alert here,” she said.
Apart from the virus itself, Spalding said she’s been feeling the effects of the pandemic on members of the Soldotna Senior Center.
Spalding said the facility closed for in-house dining for a few months during the winter surge, and offered meal delivery services in its place.
She said she’s tried her best to make sure the seniors are comfortable.
“We’re just trying to make it work,” Spalding said.
Before the pandemic, the Soldotna Senior Center offered an in-person friendly visitor program called Benefiting Every Senior Together. Employees visited with seniors and linked them with other members of the community who had similar interests.
After the virus started spreading widely in Alaska, Spalding said, the program had to be reduced to a distanced home visit or sometimes just a phone call.
“COVID did more damage by isolating the seniors,” she said.
Janet Stacy, a member of the Soldotna Senior Center, said services have definitely been more scarce for the past year and half.
“I’ve been pretty bored at times. I’ve read a gazillion books,” the 75-year-old said — including five just the past week.
Apart from reading, Stacy said her main outings are shopping trips to Fred Meyer or Walmart.
At home she paints rocks and makes jewelry, but the best part of the pandemic was home-schooling her 9-year-old granddaughter, she said.
“I’ve just tried to keep myself busy,” she said.
After the Soldotna Senior Center briefly discontinued some in-person services, Stacy said she was wary about coming back.
“They found that people were more hesitant to come in,” she said. “I was a little nervous at first.”
Now, after getting her primary COVID vaccine series and a booster shot, Stacy said she goes for lunch, art classes, game days and helps with holiday decorating.
“I have friends that I meet there for lunch … and we’ve gotten to where we can have six or seven at our table,” she said. “I will be happier when all this stuff goes, if it ever does.”
Kathy Romain, the executive director of the Kenai Senior Center, said her facility “fortunately” has not had to fully close, although mitigation measures are in place.
Like most other seniors, the Kenai members have not had the easiest year and a half, she said.
“I think people were just generally in fear of (COVID),” Romain said. “That was a really rough time.”
One of the most prominent challenges has been helping the seniors access Zoom and other video-chatting platforms in order to talk to their loved ones, Romain said.
“It was enormously hard on seniors to go month after month in social isolation,” she said.
Like others in the area, the Kenai Senior Center was able to provide takeout meals for members during the last big COVID surge. Romain said they have delivered approximately 37,000 meals in the past 15 months.
One of the aspects through the pandemic she’s been impressed with has been the seniors’ willingness to adapt as health guidelines change.
“They understand this is a trying time,” Romain said.
She said she’s trying to figure out what the new normal will look like at the center.
“I think with none of us knowing that, I’m very pleased with how the seniors have been adapting,” Romain said.
Rhoda Turinsky, who moved to Anchorage in 1958 before the U.S. recognized Alaska as a state, is a longtime member of the Kenai Senior Center.
The 91-year-old said it’s important to keep the senior community active.
Turinsky doesn’t live in the independent senior living on the Kenai Senior Center campus, but she said some of the other seniors probably felt the impacts of COVID confinement.
“We weren’t so isolated, but I would imagine here in the building really would be hard,” she said.
Turinsky caught COVID last November, she said, but exhibited minor symptoms.
“All I did was sleep,” Turinsky said. “I never sneezed, I never coughed.”
One of the discontinued services was transportation. The senior center van wasn’t running for a period during the last COVID-19 surge. Now, however, it’s operational again.
Aline Huey, a Kenai Senior Citizen member — who is also 91 years old and who also moved to Alaska prior to official statehood — said COVID-19 has made the facility’s programming dull.
“It’s been boring,” Huey said.
She regularly participates in craft classes, is a part of the sensible weight loss program, and makes quilts in her spare time.
Huey said she appreciates most people’s willingness to participate in mitigation protocols to keep the seniors safe.
“The majority of the people … have been very respectful and wearing masks, which I think is very important,” she said.
As the director of the Kenai Senior Center, Romain said that while the past year and a half has proven challenging, she’s trying the best she can to advocate for the members.
“Seniors are pretty resilient,” she said. “Some have been through a lot.”
Reach reporter Camille Botello at firstname.lastname@example.org.