Officials taking cautious approach with senior centers

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By Andreas Yilma, Staff Writer

Prospect Senior Center member Richard Cipriano of Prospect lines up a shot during a game of poll as member Jack Sopko of Naugatuck watches Sept. 9 at the center. The Prospect Senior Center is allowing members to play pool on a limited basis as the center remains mostly closed. –ANDREAS YILMA

Local senior centers will remain mostly closed, although the state has allowed them to reopen with restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state’s reopening plan allowed senior centers to reopen Sept. 1 under strict guidelines, including limiting outdoor events to 100 people and indoor events to 50% of capacity or 25 people.

However, local officials are erring on the side of caution, since senior citizens are the most at-risk group when it comes to the coronavirus.

Prospect Senior Center Director Lucy Smegielski said she’s hopeful the center will reopen fully by the end of the year.

“Every day we get calls about when we’re going to open,” Smegielski said. “We get calls all the time. I would say hundreds.”

Naugatuck Senior Center Director Harvey Frydman said borough officials are waiting to see what the end of the year brings.

“Right now we’re being very cautious,” Frydman said. “Our seniors are at a vulnerable age. We want everyone to stay safe, healthy and educated.”

The center will remain closed for the time being and could reopen for the new year, Frydman said.

“The senior center is a family and we miss our family,” Frydman said.

Beacon Falls First Selectman Gerard Smith said the town’s senior center is staying closed, too.

“We’re not planning to open,” Smith said. “We’re closed until further notice.”

Beacon Falls Senior Center President Bernadette Dionne said it doesn’t look good for the senior center reopening this year. When the center will reopen will be based on guidance from the Naugatuck Valley Health District, she said.

Dionne said it’s sad because the seniors are affected the most by the coronavirus. She said many are asking when the center is going to open and she tells them she has no idea.

Prospect Senior Center member Richard Martel of Prospect lines up a shot during a game of poll as member Richard Cipriano of Prospect watches Sept. 9 at the center. The Prospect Senior Center is allowing members to play pool on a limited basis as the center remains mostly closed. –ANDREAS YILMA

Officials are doing what they can to stay in touch with and help seniors.

Since the Prospect Senior Center closed its doors in March, workers have been making and delivering meals to 90 members three times a week, Smegielski said. She said some of the seniors don’t have family in the area and almost all of the seniors receiving food live alone.

“We’re doing dinners,” Smegielski said. “There are some Prospect seniors who haven’t come out of their house since March.”

Frydman said he stays in contact with many of the center’s members and some seniors have worked on the vegetable garden at the center over the summer.

“Our seniors are staying positive, motivated and educated about this COVID-19 pandemic,” Frydman said.

A semblance of normalcy returned recently at the Prospect Senior Center, which is allowing members to play bocce at a field near the building and billiards in the pool room.

Members must make appointments to use the pool room or play bocce. A limit of six people can be in the pool room at a time and members must bring their own pool sticks. People who play pool are screened before being let in the building. The billiard balls and tables are disinfected after every use, Smegielski said.

“I’m just thrilled. We haven’t been able to get together to do anything for six months,” said senior center member Jack Sopko, 77, of Naugatuck, as he played pool with a couple other members Sept. 8. “We’re just thrilled, but basically other than that, at least for us anyway, we’re sitting at home. … It’s just nice to have something to look forward to. Get up in the morning and have a use.”

“It’s getting back to living, otherwise you’re just vegetating,” added member Richard Cipriano, 87, of Prospect.

Member Richard Martel, 70, of Prospect, said he’s thrilled the facility is open for billiards.

“We’re fortunate because we’re able to do this, but for 95% of the seniors that love this place, that this is their life, they can’t come here yet,” Martel said. “There’s nothing for them to do.”

Prospect Senior Center worker Lirene Lorensen, left, and kitchen manager Lori Anderson make Reuben sandwiches at the Prospect Senior Center to deliver to seniors Sept. 9. –ANDREAS YILMA

Martel said those who can play billiards in the senior center are the lucky ones because they’re able to do it safely. A lot of people need the center for many other reasons, he said.

“It’s a whole life for some people, especially widows and widowers. They’re all alone. It really performs a vital function in peoples’ lives,” Cipriano said. “With this coronavirus, the way it is now, it’s really affected a lot of lives.”

The Prospect Senior Center has about 2,000 members and the Naugatuck Senior Center has about 800 members. For some seniors, the centers are their only form of socializing, officials said.

“They used to socialize with friends. This (senior center) always gave them a place to talk,” Smegielski said. “It was like the meeting place. They ate here, socialized here, had programs here, and they miss it.”

Dionne said there are about 200 members of the Beacon Falls Senior Center, and roughly 50 are active members. She said many live by themselves and some don’t drive. The senior center is their getaway, she said.

“My senior center is like home,” she said. “We’re like one big family.”

Before shutting down, Frydman said there were some seniors who would go the center at 7 a.m. and the center was their second home.

“I get phone calls, knocks on the door, a lot of emails. They miss the activities, programs. It’s a support system,” Frydman said. “Right now the support system is through the internet and text messaging.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated from the article published in the Sept. 17 edition of the Citizen’s News to include comments from Beacon Falls Senior Center President Bernadette Dionne from an interview after press time.

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