Nellie Armenta is one of those people who loves the South Pasadena Senior Center.
And she sure does miss it now.
Armenta was a volunteer there in the early 2000s and looked forward to seeing her friends at the facility at 1102 Oxley St. — where she longs to see them again. Before March, the 86-year-old South Pasadena resident usually spent three hours a day, three times a week there.
“In addition to having lunch, I have an exercise class and I try and go to the presentations from the different agencies. They are so important to seniors. A lot of people don’t know what they are missing by not going regularly to the Senior Center,” she said.
But the pandemic has put a screeching halt to that.
The center “has been a part of my life and I miss it,” she said. “I haven’t been out to a store or market since March,” she said. “My family has been taking care of everything. No one wants me to be out there. My family is doing everything they can. It’s a whole new lifestyle.
“I’m OK. I’m home, but why give my family a hard time?”
Many of the 400 seniors — age 60 and older — who would typically visit the center know how Armenta feels, since it was forced to close in March during the shutdown.
“There is a lot of frustration,” concluded Liliana Torres, the facility’s manager. “People are stuck at home more now and want the Senior Center to open.”
She estimated that 10-20% of those she has talked to feel trapped either because they are afraid or because their families — like Armenta’s — don’t want them venturing out to stores.
Torres has a group of five advisers who call to check on seniors — which they did every week for the first few months and now about every other week.
“I don’t hear fear as much as frustration,” Torres said.
One of those who is making calls is Alexandria Levitt, a gerontologist who serves on the Senior Citizen Commission as well as the Senior Citizens Foundation of South Pasadena. Levitt, an author, specializes in community engagement and strategic partnerships and senior co-housing.
“My concern is isolation. People are stuck at home,” said Levitt, who said the first question she often gets is “‘When is the Senior Center going to open?’ They miss the center and they can’t do anything and this could go on for months.
“I call and people say, ‘I’m fine.’ I’m concerned that some of them are not getting a chance to get out. And they have no access or ability to use Zoom. People are stuck on their own and are not talking as much to people.
“Socializing is like a muscle. When you don’t use it, it gets weaker.
“Scientists are going to have to take awhile to determine the impact this pandemic has had on older people — what are the other consequences we have to look out for?”
Levitt said the people she called mentioned isolation rather than expressing a sense of fear. “I think I know more moms my age [middle age] who have expressed actual fear about the future.”
The reason the center cannot open, Torres explained, is that it is subject to Centers for Disease Control and Los Angeles County guidance. “The Senior Center doesn’t want to put any lives at risk, therefore we will continue with not offering any classes on site,” she said.
That doesn’t mean that Torres and her staff have been idle — far from it. The staff is serving about 65 meals a day to anyone who requests one.
The staff has also come up with an activity guide that it sends out each month with delivered meals. The guides provide resources for staying healthy and active as well as crossword puzzles and word searches. Multiple times the center has included masks that were donated by local groups and care packages that had sweet treats and cards. Torres said the center is also working to put together a few virtual classes for members to access.
Levitt said that because the Senior Center is a government entity, it is unable to take advantage of one physical way to get members to mingle. “In some independent and assisted living places, they have separated people into pods. These would be small groups where people would feel safer,” she said.
“I feel like a lot of families are taking their loved ones out of assisted and independent homes. They are weighing the risks versus the rewards.”
With medical offices closed, use of the Dial-A-Ride service was way down during the shutdown, but Torres said those numbers have slowly been rising again — to about 60 rides per week, with priority given to medical appointments and grocery shopping.
Torres said those drivers ― along with her other staff members — have been a necessary and valuable part of the effort to work with seniors in South Pasadena.
“Not one staff member complained or expressed concern and they all have eagerly done their job and continue to do so,” Torres said. “I could not be more proud to work with a team of exceptional committed staff that care about the population we serve and grateful that we have been able to make a difference in South Pasadena during a time when life has been a little frightening.”
While many seniors who would normally spend at least part of a day at the center enjoying the companionship of their friends over lunch, or participating in the many activities and classes, do say they feel isolated, they are finding ways to do different things.
Nicole Laborie meets a group of her friends every other week and they exchange cookies and conversation under the trees outside the locked center.
“We laugh and everyone is happy,” she said. “We feel so much better doing that. We get to see each other and talk. And some of the people I call don’t have anyone to talk to. It feels good that someone cares.”
Armenta is a walker, but she said the recent high temperatures have made that activity hard to do ― so she has a stationary bicycle. She also enjoys the company of her family, whose members take turns visiting her. And now she has a friend who comes by once a week.
She’s also been reading more, doing world puzzles and “keeping busy doing things I haven’t been doing for a while — like crocheting.
“I talk to my friends, but there’s so little to talk about.
“And who can be excited about air hugs?
“The amount we can do is limited. It isn’t supposed to be like this.”
In More Normal Times, Center Has Space Issues
The South Pasadena Senior Center has presented new challenges over the past decade to its manager, Liliana Torres — not the least of which has been trying to make the most of the building’s limited space.
“We have to get creative with scheduling to try and offer multiple activities within the three spaces we have every hour to1½ hours, but some would complain that it wasn’t fair that more than one class was offered at the same time and they wanted to attend two of them,” said Torres. She was referring to issues that arose before the center closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and presumably will arise again when it eventually can reopen.
The biggest change, according to the manager, was the increased number of fitness and movement classes and activities.
“Over the past 10 years, I focused on increasing classes to at least three-four times per week to stay fit and active,” Torres said.
“We did that slowly, moving some classes to the Library Community Room or the War Memorial on Fair Oaks Avenue to accommodate the increased participation. Prior to COVID, we had at least two fitness or movement [dancing] classes four times a week.”
Torres noted that she scheduled weekly presentations on natural health and alternative forms of improving health — using speakers from wellness organizations, local hospitals and natural health practitioners.
“These drew a good-size audience and seniors were interested in learning more on how to improve their health with good food, oils and natural treatments,” Torres said. “Many seniors would stop by my office and thank us for presentations and they shared how it helped their lives.”
The Senior Center and the Community Services Division are funded by the Utility Users Tax, which is up for a vote in the upcoming election as Measure U.
— Andy Lippman