An October 2020 report from the AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation came to this concerning conclusion: “Two-thirds of adults report experiencing social isolation and high levels of anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic. … Many of those affected have not turned to anyone for help, perhaps because many don’t have reliable social-support networks.”

A recent statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quantified the health risks of loneliness: “Social isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia and other serious medical conditions. … There is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk.”

Because of all this, it was fantastic news when in June, the area’s senior centers—including the Mizell Center in Palm Springs, and the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert—were finally able to open their doors after being closed for 15 long months.

Then, almost immediately, came the Delta-variant-driven spike in COVID-19 cases. However, both Mizell and the Joslyn Center have remained open, thanks to both proper precautions and a high vaccination rate among senior citizens.

“The members are thrilled to be back,” said Jack Newby, the executive director of the Joslyn Center. “And it’s really important that they be back, because they’ve been isolated for so long. One of the main reasons for senior centers is (to alleviate) the adverse health consequences for seniors, which can be enormous when people are isolated for long periods of time.”

Newby cited one study that said prolonged isolation for seniors had similar negative health effects to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

“Our goal all along during this COVID pandemic has been to try and keep people engaged through virtual programs,” Newby said. “Now that we’re open for in-person programs, we’re limiting attendance; we’re taking temperatures and requiring masks. We keep detailed class records in case we need to do contact-tracing, and we’ve expanded our cleaning schedule. We’ve (temporarily) re-done our lobby so that it’s not conducive to gathering.”

Newby said he, too, is feeling better now that the Joslyn Center’s members are back in the building.

“We have (an electronic, website-fed) calendar displayed in our lobby,” he said. “… Sometimes, during days when we were closed, I’d turn on that calendar just to see what virtual programs were going on, so I could remind myself that we were out there doing things.”

Harriet Baron is the director of development at the Mizell Center, where the building reopened to members on June 15, and non-members on July 12. She said Mizell staff prepared the building while closed to be COVID-19-safer when it reopened.

“We had plexiglass installed all the way around our front desk, for instance,” Baron said. “Due to our lack of space, our staff members are forced to sit rather close to one another, so we had plexiglass placed around each of their desks. Also, we replaced fabric-covered chairs with 300 brand-new vinyl-covered chairs. We installed air-scrubbers for our HVAC system. We did everything we possibly could to ensure to our members that we were providing them with the safest environment that we could with the means that were available to us.”

Mizell issued a vaccine mandate for everyone entering the building, which went into effect Aug. 9.

“We’re proud to be the first among our peers to put such a policy in place,” Baron said. “People were so grateful that we put this policy in place that they were coming in with their vaccination cards immediately after receiving our email notification, asking, ‘Can I get my green dot now?’ (A staff member places a green dot on a member’s center identification card after proof of vaccination is shown.) … People are relieved and grateful to know that we are doing everything that can be done to protect their health and welfare. Yes, there have been one or two people who have left their thoughts about this on Facebook, and there have been one or two people who have shared their thoughts in a phone call. By and large, they have not been members of our organization.”

“While you’re in our building, you must always have a mask in place. People have been very compliant with that, and they’re really good about monitoring one another, which is very reassuring.”

Harriet Baron, mizell center director of development

Over at the Joslyn Center, Newby and his team decided not to issue a vaccine mandate for now.

“We had an extensive discussion about it at one of our board meetings,” Newby said. “I have mixed feelings about it. I know that I can go on the internet in 60 seconds and get a blank vaccination card and print it out on card stock, if I wanted to do that. Perhaps if people are able to provide the link to the state of California’s vaccination (database), then that might be something that we would look at. Unfortunately, right now with the Delta variant that we’re dealing with, even if somebody is vaccinated, they could still become infected. So, for a number of reasons, we have not yet decided to require proof of vaccine.”

While proof of vaccination is not required at the Joslyn Center, masks certainly are.

“There was initially some resistance from some members about wearing their masks,” Newby said. “We had to tell them that, ‘If we have to remind you more than once, we’re going to start by suspending your class activities for a week.’ If they continue to not follow the rules, then we will have to suspend that class activity indefinitely. … We haven’t had to take that step yet, because once we give them the warning, the fear factor sets in, and they go wear their mask. … Our feeling is that this is nothing to play around with. This is a virus. We know it doesn’t care how old you are. It doesn’t care what political party you’re in, how rich you are, or how poor you are. It’s a virus.”

Mizell has kept its mask mandate in place as well, even after instituting the proof-of-vaccination policy.

“While you’re in our building, you must always have a mask in place,” Baron said. “People have been very compliant with that, and they’re really good about monitoring one another, which is very reassuring. If someone is diametrically opposed to wearing a mask, then we will not invite them in.”

Newby said the pandemic has taken a significant toll on the Joslyn Center’s membership rolls.

“Prior to COVID, we had a little over 2,100 members,” Newby said. “Because we weren’t able to offer (in-person) classes, many people did not feel that they needed the membership. So, (membership) dropped by about 50%, which for us had a pretty significant financial impact. Now that we are opening more classes, we are seeing more enrollment. We’ve probably made up about 40% of that loss.”

Conversely, Baron reported that Mizell’s membership numbers are up: “Off the top of my head, I’d say (our membership numbers) increased about 15-20%.”

Both centers offer Meals on Wheels service for homebound and needy seniors—and both have seen the demand skyrocket.

“Our Meals on Wheels program has increased, and it was even more at the height of COVID, because we were helping the Riverside County Office on Aging with emergency food,” Newby, of the Joslyn Center, said. “They would call us and ask if we could help them out with meals, and then either our volunteers or their volunteers would deliver them. Now, the city of Rancho Mirage, which invested a lot in the (partially federally funded) Great Plates program, just ended it, so we are starting to see some of the people who were on that program wanting to enroll in our program.”

Mizell’s Baron said: “It’s been extremely impactful on our Meals On Wheels program. The number of people we were serving on a daily basis increased by 60%. Same number of staff, same kitchen space, same everything—but just more food, and a lot of hope, and commitment, and heart.”

Both Newby and Baron expressed hope that their centers would be able to stay open despite the Delta-fueled case surge.

“We’ve come back to the land of the living,” Baron said, “and we’re really happy to be here. … About a year and a half ago, in February 2020, we revealed our new logo and branding. Our new tag line was: ‘Full of Life.’ Well, for the next 15 months, that was just ironic. But we are now very glad and relieved that the Mizell Center is again full of life.”

Newby summed up his COVID experience by simply saying: “Support your local senior center.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...