Senior centers in Middletown and Smyrna persevere during pandemic
Senior centers in central Delaware, stung by the loss of hall rentals and fundraisers, are struggling to survive and meet the needs of older residents dealing with isolation and hunger during the pandemic.
At the Mamie A. Warren Senior Center west of Smyrna, director Debbie Brown said 2020 was the most challenging year she’s faced during her 17 years in charge and 20 years total working at the center.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Brown.
The center, usually thriving with craft class, daily lunches and other activities, was closed from mid-March until August. The center closed again Dec. 14 after Gov. John Carney’s advisory.
“The most common thing people say is they miss the socialization — talking and visiting with everyone,” said Brown. “I think the loneliness is the biggest concern.”
Attendance plummeted to just 4 to 10 per day, compared to 30 to 40 before the pandemic.
“We could only bring in four people on the bus instead of 16,” said Brown.
“We used to have a lot of fun. We had penny bingo, crafts, painting. People would come in to shoot pool and play Wii video games. We had parties for special holidays,” said Brown. “They looked forward to that, but we haven’t done any of that since March.”
The MOT Jean Birch Senior Center in Middletown has continued to offer in-person programs when allowed by state coronavirus guidelines, but Ceil DeFazio said the pandemic has posed the biggest problems she’s faced in her 18 years as executive director.
The staff has arranged more classes, but that means higher expenses to pay instructors.
While continuing programs for people who could attend in person, the senior center’s staff also focused on helping those who couldn’t.
“We started doing wellness checks by telephone,” said DeFazio. “The seniors who really need the contact are the ones who don’t drive. The pandemic has really been hurting those people who are alone, isolated or afraid of going out.”
Using a state grant, the senior center provided 20 iPads to those who live alone, along with a few home computers and Wi-Fi boosters for those who didn’t have access to internet, along with guiding them through the online process.
“Facetime is the next best thing to being there,” said DeFazio. “This also allows them to communicate with doctors, so they don’t have to go to waiting rooms.”
Before the pandemic, average attendance at the Middletown center was about 85 people per day, but now that number is about 40 to 45, DeFazio said.
“We’ve had to turn people away because of the capacity restrictions and sometimes had to shut down group activities completely. It’s been a real struggle, going back and forth,” said DeFazio. “It’s been hard on our staff and hard on our seniors.”
Even with concerns about the coronavirus, DeFazio said most members aren’t afraid to visit the center because the staff and the seniors have been wearing masks, sanitizing surfaces and social distancing.
The centers in Middletown and Smyrna aren’t alone.
Melissa Smith, director of the Division of Services for Aging and Adults with Physical Disabilities, said senior centers throughout the state have suffered declines in attendance and in revenue because fundraisers have been limited or canceled.
“It’s concerning because it means lost opportunities for seniors to access services they’re depending on,” said Smith.
The division has helped centers by distributing federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds based on the annual grant-in-aid money the centers receive from the state. She said the CARES Act funding has helped with groceries and meal delivery for seniors along with wellness phone calls and a high-tech solution -- more virtual .
“These are ways to reduce social isolation,” said Smith.
Expanding meal programs
Even with the closings, the centers in Middletown and Smyrna never stopped serving Meals on Wheels home delivery — and they actually expanded food programs.
The Mamie Warren Center has been offering “grab and go” meals weekdays, and the “brown bag program” provides groceries once a month to seniors in need, with help from the Food Bank of Delaware.
“There are people who need us desperately,” said Meals on Wheels volunteer Mollie Goss. “We deliver food, but we also get to know them and make sure they’re OK.”
Goss has been volunteering three to four days a week for about four years, but said 2020 was the most challenging.
“Before the pandemic, we would bring the meals into their homes and chat, but now we can’t do that,” said Goss.
They are delivering about 140 meals each day, up from about 100 before the pandemic.
At the MOT Senior Center, the Meals on Wheels program continued as usual, but the staff added grocery deliveries for seniors concerned about shopping at a store.
“Initially a lot of people came to us and we delivered some, but now we deliver twice a month to about 70 homes with more food than they would get if they came to us, and only about 10 to 12 households come to pick up groceries,” said DeFazio.
Government and community support has boosted the program, including a grant from New Castle County.
Tony Immediato of Immediato’s Catering cooked meals at the center which were packed in containers for take-outs and deliveries. Friendly’s restaurant has provided hot meals at a discount. Willey Farms to has provided fresh produce, and Powers Farms has donated eggs.
Residents have donated money and groceries.
“We are very lucky to have great support from our community,” DeFazio said.
Key financial losses
Senior centers receive state funds through the grant-in-aid process, determined by the governor and state legislators.
To supplement those funds, many senior centers hold fundraisers like bingo or dinners, and rent out their hall for wedding receptions, parties and church services. But the pandemic has taken a bite out of those opportunities.
DeFazio said when the pandemic started, rentals stopped at the center in Middletown, but they also had to give refunds to people who canceled events.
Hall rentals brought in about $65,000 in 2019. That dropped to $26,000 in 2020.
The Middletown center had to cancel its two largest fundraisers, Peach Fest and Winter Fest, which bring in an estimated $12,000 combined, DeFazio said.
Income from other fundraisers such as dinners, shows and bingo totaled about $48,000 in 2019, but fell to about $6,000 in 2020.
The hall rentals and fundraisers represented about 25% of the overall budget in 2019 but will be a fraction of that when the final numbers are calculated from 2020.
DeFazio said the center has “wonderful partners” in the Delaware Division of Aging, the Delaware Alliance of Nonprofit Advancement, New Castle County, the Delaware Community Foundation, United Way and the Small Business Alliance who have helped financially. But most of those grants are for specific programs including new food distribution services that weren’t part of the budget before the pandemic, and can’t be used for day-to-day operating expenses like utilities, building maintenance and bus maintenance.
The MOT Senior Center applied and received Paycheck Protection Program funds from the federal government to help pay the staff of 17 which includes a mix of full- and part-time workers.
“Those funds were enough to cover about two months for our staff,” said DeFazio.
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At the Mamie Warren Center, Brown estimated that profits from hall rentals and fundraisers were down 40% in 2020, compared to 2019.
“We had a lot of people cancel their hall rentals. That was a big loss,” said Brown. “We’ve had a few rentals that were small, maybe 30 to 40 people, to comply with the restrictions. We are able to continue that.”
The center operates on a fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30, not a calendar year.
Fiscal year 2019 hall rental and fundraising profits were $63,131 from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019. For fiscal year 2020 which ended June 30, those profits dipped to $57,806.
About halfway through the 2021 fiscal year which started July 1, those funds have nosedived to $16,622.
The big blow was the loss of weekly bingo games that were open to the public.
“We tried it and only allowed 50 people altogether, players and people running the games, but it wasn’t cost effective,” said Brown.
Major fundraisers like the crab feast and peach festival had to be canceled.
“We did have a craft show, but we had to keep it minimal. We had an indoor-outdoor yard sale, and we sold tickets for a prize drawing,” said Brown.
How to help
At the Mamie Warren Center, Brown said volunteers are needed for the Meals on Wheels program.
“Some of our volunteers, understandably, said they didn’t want to continue during COVID,” Brown said. “Some used to deliver twice a week but they’ve cut back to once a week.”
For information on volunteering, call the center, (302) 653-4078.
Monetary donations can also be sent with a check to the Mamie A. Warren Senior Center, 1775 Wheatley's Pond Road, Smyrna, DE 19977, or credit card payments are accepted by phone.
At the MOT Senior Center, donations of canned goods and shelf-stable food can be delivered to the center weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., but DeFazio said donors should call first, 378-4758, to find out what items are needed.
A new fundraiser is the monthly “heat and eat” dinner that feature “contactless” take-out meals for two. Orders can be placed by phone.
Monetary contributions can be made by credit card by phone or by sending a check to the M.O.T. Senior Center, 300 S. Scott St., Middletown, DE 19709.