For the past few months, the Council on Aging has worked tirelessly to help the most vulnerable Harvard residents cope with acute social isolation and anxiety resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, it is apparent how important an active senior center is, and we are grateful to be able to offer services people need most, even when the building itself is closed. The COA staff has organized a full range of exercise classes and other programs via Zoom, and regular food deliveries to people who request them. Outreach workers keep in close touch with many homebound residents by phone to make sure they have what they need and know who to call to get help.
Harvard residents—28% of whom are seniors themselves—have supported the COA generously over the years in ways large and small. Our programs and services would not be possible without a dedicated staff and a small army of volunteers, donations of all kinds, and the support of Harvard taxpayers. We are grateful for that support, and painfully aware that this is not the best time to be asking townspeople to support a $4.3 million addition to Hildreth House.
But the need for that additional space is more important now than ever. The pandemic has shown us the critical importance of providing an adequate amount of physical separation while offering socialization to fight loneliness and depression, especially—but not only—for seniors.
Most of us have been stuck at home since March, so we have new appreciation for the simple pleasure of seeing friends and sitting down together for a meal. We can all see how important socialization is for people of all ages, but for older people, it is essential to maintaining their mental and physical health.
It seems safe to assume that social distancing will be the new normal for senior centers, even after the rules are relaxed for the general population. At Hildreth House, assuming a 6-foot distancing requirement, none of the COA’s most popular programs could be held. The twice-weekly lunches, weekly men’s coffee, and other programs and events just would not fit, not even outside on the porch. The current dining room’s capacity would be limited to four to six diners; the porch would hold five to six tables, which means seating for 15-18 at most, all straining to hear one another outdoors. Before the coronavirus hit, there would often be 20 or more diners at lunch, and at least 20 men would gather for coffee on Wednesday mornings. Last summer 64 ice cream lovers showed up for the annual ice cream social on the porch.
If we are ever going to be able to serve our senior population properly, we must have more space. This is not a luxury we can’t afford. It is a necessity we cannot afford to put off any longer.
Debbie Thompson is director of the Harvard Council on Aging