Laconia Senior Center springs back to life — but patrons are missing

LACONIA — Sunlight filters through a wide picture window onto a table at the Laconia Senior Center. With a surgeon’s attention to detail, Julie Demers, 79, assembles jigsaw puzzle pieces, scattered like chunky confetti, into a portrait of smiling llamas.

Behind her, Dave Jenne, a singer and guitarist who has been blind since birth, sings country love songs with the soulful timbre of Willie Nelson, or Hank Williams. Across the room, four women in their 80s, who met and became friends here before COVID, talk about the crafts they love to teach. Life is about connecting and helping others, they say – regardless of one’s age. At a conference table near the entrance, seniors are receiving coaching on how to become companions to homebound elders.

It’s a comforting scene, brimming with chitchat and laughter. But a question hangs in the air: When will all the older patrons who loved this place return to enjoy it?

“It’s a clean, safe environment for everyone,” said Tracie Elder, center’s director, with a camp counselor’s enthusiasm. At the Center’s new location at 532 Main Street, which opened in March 2021 between Family Dollar and the former site of Sawyer’s Jewelry, there’s ample room to distance people, and tables and chairs are sanitized after each activity, she said. “We want people to know they can come in and socialize again and enjoy each other’s company. For people who love doing something, now we’re able to have them do what they love.”

It's an inviting message. But reaching the target audience is a challenge.

Before COVID closed Laconia’s Senior Center for 18 months and it relocated from Church Street, where it had been since 1997, the center hosted 20 to 25 regulars who came for coffee, conversation, entertainment, activities and a midday meal. Now the turnout is lower, 10 to 12 on some days, with most coming just in the mornings for coffee, snacks, crafts, music, or bingo or other games. Holiday meals can draw 50 or 60, just like old times. But now the center serves meals only four days a month, down from twice per week before COVID. Staff and volunteers still pack food and goody bags and deliver 200 to 230 microwaveable meals to elders who receive Meals on Wheels. They consider their mission critical, especially to homebound peers. Rebooting senior social life post-COVID is an equally pressing goal.

The Community Action Program of Belknap and Merrimack Counties hopes door-to-door bus service and added programs will pull former patrons plus newcomers. Mid-State transportation can pick up seniors from Laconia and area towns at their front doors and bring them to the center on varying days, with reservations made by calling 603-225-1989. Tax preparation specialists from both AARP and United Way provide fee-free tax prep by appointment for seniors and low-income residents. Activities are planned according to the interests of those who come.

But one key feature is missing – one that would allow the center to provide hot congregate meals up to five days a week. The center needs a commercial kitchen. Fundraising to build one will begin soon, with a goal of collecting roughly $300,000 from large corporations and smaller local donors, according to administrators at CAP-BM.

Until full-service cooking facilities are built, hot meals are trucked in on Thursdays from CAP-BM’s kitchen in Concord. All of CAP-BM’s eight senior centers in Alton, Laconia, Tilton, Franklin, Concord, Bradford, Suncook and Pittsfield have licensed kitchens. But Laconia’s is the only one without a place to cook.

“Microwaves have their limits,” said Irene Johnson, 84, a Laconia resident who comes regularly, including each time that food is served. “I don’t like washing dishes in the bathroom sink – but that’s what we have to do.”

Laconia Senior Center springs back to life — but patrons are missing

“When you’re living alone, you don’t want to go home and cook,” said Carol Murray, 80, of Laconia, who like others, misses having hot lunch at the center on weekdays. “Cooking for one is horrible. When you’re with friends, you get excited just to have hot dogs with them.”

Hot, midday group meals (with a minimal donation suggested, but not required) have always been a big magnet here, especially for seniors living alone and those on limited incomes.

“As we progress in older age, we tend to eat better when we’re together socially. It’s better for digestion and a multitude of things,” said Suzanne Demers, head of elder services for CAP-BM.

“It makes us happy. That social and emotional interaction makes us healthier throughout our bodies,” said Michael Tabory, chief operating officer of CAP-BM.

“It’s the fact that here you have someone sitting across the table and can have a nice conversation,” said Johnson. “I consider the senior center my second home and the people in it are my sisters.”

After COVID shut down senior social life for nearly a year and a half, the vulnerable population that ordinarily battles chronic health conditions, physical frailty, isolation and loneliness has yet to fully embrace the new normal. Many people in their 70s and 80s (who comprise most senior centers) still aren’t comfortable with venturing out or gathering in large or small groups again, according to older residents and their advocates. Although most aging adults relish their freedom of movement and are eager to enjoy the company of peers after what seemed like an interminable sentence at home, change doesn’t come quickly or easily. Routine shopping and social events can be anxiety-provoking in the wake of the pandemic. Many witnessed COVID’s toll among family and friends. For some, leaving the safety of home has become a test of bravery and a question of relative risk. Others don’t realize the senior centers are back in business.

“I had a call yesterday. A lady said, 'I haven’t been here in over a year. I want to know, are you open? Are we allowed to come in the building?’” Elder said. “Some people are scared to get out again. There’s still a small population that thinks, ‘If I go if they go anywhere, I’m going to get COVID.’” Until very recently, when Omicron numbers began to fall in New Hampshire, worries about the Delta variant, the highly contagious nature of Omicron, and catching the long-haul version of COVID have kept many elders at home, where it becomes a habit to stay put - and where sadness and inertia can take root.

“I’m a very active person so I don’t think I went through the depression that others did,” said Pat Gould, 81, a retired nurse who enjoys leading sewing and quilting groups and volunteers twice a week at the Laconia Senior Center. With companions here she makes placemats and potholders to put inside the bags delivered by Meals on Wheels. “We’re down to so few people now. I don’t know why more people haven’t come back,” Gould said. “Maybe it’s still the depression.Older people don’t like change, and now they’re used to staying in. We used to have two tables for bridge. Now we can’t get one.”

Demers and Elder said the centers take all current, recommended safety protections, follow CDC guidelines and the state’s requirements for restaurants, and have created space between people engaged in every inside activity. Masks are optional.

“My parents come here. I want the same level of care for everyone,” said Elder. “Any time I feed people, they love coming. It just gives people that sense of community again that they haven’t had in a couple of years. Some people have been stuck in their homes. Getting back to normal is a healthy transition.”

Parking is located at the back of the building, near the entrance at 184 Beacon Street West. The center is open weekdays from 8 to 3 p.m., and offers free meals (donations are optional) on most Thursdays from 11:30 to 12:30, bingo every Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to noon. Group activities include meditation, sewing and quilting or coffee socials on Mondays in March. Tuesday mornings feature knitting, board and card games, Easter crafts or a blood pressure clinic. A St. Patrick’s Day corned beef meal will be served from 11:30 to 12:30 on March 17. Call the center at 603-524-7689 to RSVP. A book club meets Friday, March 25 from 11 to noon. To make reservations for any holiday dinner, to ask about available programs and services, or for an up-to-date schedule, call 603-524-7689. CAP offers fuel assistance and a food pantry.

“There’s lots of different programs,” said Elder, who encourages people to call. “People may not know where to look for things. With all kinds of staff, we try to come up with ways to help.”