When Rita De La Rosa was searching for a welcoming place where she and her mother, Reynalda Staufer, could socialize and make new friends, they found it at the Memorial Park Senior Citizen Center.
The center in Central El Paso offered more than conversation. Since 2018, the mother-and-daughter team had lunch and dinner there, while dances and the occasional cake sales were also part of the schedule. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit El Paso, their main source of staying socially active quickly disappeared after the city shut down most of its non-essential services in March 2020.
“I used to be able to go with my friends and now I can’t because I’m here taking care of my mom,” De La Rosa said. “The socializing part of it is very sad because we don’t get to do that, and I know my mom misses that too.”
The city has gradually reopened some community facilities as more El Pasoans receive vaccines to protect against the virus and as hospitalization rates continue to drop.
Senior centers have been left off that list, however, and city officials haven’t said when people like De La Rosa and Staufer can expect to go back.
“Phase 1 reopenings are not for 100% of all facilities and programs,” said Ben Fyffe, director of Cultural Affairs and Recreation for the city of El Paso.
He added that El Paso health and emergency management officials need more time to evaluate the potential for spikes in COVD-19 cases before some facilities reopen.
“Senior centers will be opened at a later phase, as will be festivals, additional museums, additional libraries, additional aquatic facilities, and additional recreation centers,” he said.
Some of the city’s health-care experts argue that reopening senior centers is more important than festivals or museums.
Social interaction is critical throughout the aging process because of the potential implications for overall quality of life, said Marcelo Rodriguez-Chevres, a psychiatrist from Emergence Health Network.
“Now you have people that do need that social contact from someone, especially from loved ones and significant others that are isolated,” Rodriguez-Chevres said. “Very brief visits might not really meet those needs that this population has.”
Other agencies are trying to fill in the gaps of closed senior centers through virtual activities.
The Rio Grande Area Agency on Aging offers programs that provide virtual services for older adults and those who care for them, including adult day activity care programs, Yvette Lugo, the director of the agency, said.
“We were working together to make sure that those people who were coming to the center could still get a meal,” Lugo said.
Lugo said they are able to provide meals through Older Americans Act funding.
“Through the partnership with the county nutrition program, those participants were still able to come at least get food,” Lugo said.
People seeking assistance who are 60 and older and are eligible can apply with the Area Agency on Aging to determine if they are eligible for meals and other services.
“We obviously recognize that socialization is, in fact, such an important factor here when we’re dealing with older adults,” Lugo said. “But again, for their protection, we had to modify things.”
The Area Agency on Aging has been able to continue classes for older adults who have shown interest in participating. Three types of classes are offered, including discussions on health and wellness, a course that combines nutrition and exercise, and discussions on medicine.
Two of the classes — “Walk With Ease” and “Texercise” — require participants to call into virtual group settings. Lugo said it took some time for participants to be able to communicate effectively within a group call.
“Walk With Ease” is a 30-minute course on guided exercises that participants can complete on their own time. “Texercise” participants meet twice a week for guided exercises.
Lugo said some of the participants have become increasingly motivated to exercise and stay physically active.
“It’s taken some skill to manage conversations over the phone as people can talk over each other,” she said. “This is our way of trying to stay connected, along with the other services we provide.”
Learning a new hobby can help those who are experiencing a lack of socialization, which can address mental and emotional wellness, Rodriguez-Cereves said.
“Learning a new language or task or playing a brain game, something that makes you think, actually enhances neurogenetic development,” he said.
Cover photo: El Paso senior centers have been closed since March 2020, with no reopening date set. (Nicole Lopez/El Paso Matters)
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the funding source for meals for seniors. The money comes from the Older Americans Act.