Alaska senior centers are cautiously re-opening
May 1, 2021 | View PDF
Like flowers in spring, senior centers across the state of Alaska are beginning to open up again. Most have been closed since March 2020, a time we collectively remember as the end of "normal" life.
"Today, a woman came to the center that I had not seen in a year," Marlene Munsell, Assistant Executive Director of Wasilla Area Seniors, Inc. (WASI), said in April. "As more people are vaccinated and feeling comfortable, we expect to see more people return to the center."
Senior centers statewide are either opting to cautiously re-open or resume services full force. Some are still offering virtual activities and others are beginning beloved in-person activities like bingo. All are offering an array of options for dining, including congregate meals, takeout or Meals on Wheels deliveries.
To combat COVID cases fluctuating in different areas of the state, a good number of senior centers in densely populated areas like Anchorage and Eagle River are opting to work with their municipality on a phased approach to reopening.
Anchorage Senior Activity Center (ASAC), for example, will offer a phased approach effective April 15. Phase 1 will allow seniors into the building on a by-appointment-only basis for limited activities, including to arrange for on-site fitness orientation or fitness assessment. Most other services, including exercise classes and benefit screenings, will continue to be offered over the phone or online.
"Our Phase 1 opening looks similar to our operations throughout the pandemic," said Patrick Curtis, Wellness and Programs Director for ASAC. A Phase 2 date and additional services offered in-person
have not been decided upon yet, as ASAC staff continue monitoring COVID cases in the area.
In other areas like Ninilchik and the Mat-Su Valley, senior centers have been open since the fall. While these centers did not take a more conservative approach to opening their doors to patrons, such as in this spring's phased approaches, they gradually increased from limited hours to being open at full pre-COVID hours.
No matter how centers have reopened, all of them have been following CDC guidelines, including recommending social distancing at 6 feet and mask wearing for seniors and staff.
Other centers might not be opting to open to the public at all at this time in places like the Kenai Peninsula, Interior and North Slope, so make sure to call your local senior center before attempting any in-person visits, as most are requiring seniors to make appointments before arriving to speak with staff one-on-one, if they are offering in-person services at all.
In Fairbanks and North Pole, Fairbanks Senior Center and Santa's Senior Center have confirmed they are not ready to open in the spring and will keep patrons updated as the summer months approach. In the case of Fairbanks Senior Center, necessary building renovations are preventing a full return to the center and will cause indefinite delays.
Regardless of reopening plans, all centers had continued to feed seniors throughout the pandemic through takeout options and home deliveries.
For centers that have reopened to in-person dining, social distancing requirements of three people per table is recommended, but not required, with center staff allowing seniors to make their own decisions on what makes them most comfortable while visiting the center for in-person meals. For some, social distancing tickles their fancy, but for others, the opportunity to dine with friends they haven't seen in a year is more rewarding. Regardless, seniors are usually asked to wear a mask while moving about the center, similar to what restaurants are asking of patrons when they are not seated at their table.
Most centers require a reservation before eating indoors due to capacity limits, and all takeout options ask that seniors call at least a day in advance before picking up a meal to go.
For anyone - seniors or caregivers - needing assistance through meal home deliveries, contact your local Meals on Wheels representative or call your local senior center or Aging and Disability Resource Center to get connected. Most places around the state are offering breakfast, lunch and dinner for anyone interested.
As far as activities go, centers that have opened their doors full time have resumed in-person exercise classes and other activities. For example, WASI has church services, Quilts of Valor and exercise classes like Bingo-cize (a clever mix of bingo and fall prevention exercises) back up and running.
Ninilchik Senior Center has gotten creative with their in-person activities, catering to all types of comfort levels by scheduling masked activities, such as Sewing with Masks on Mondays, and no-mask activities, like Games with No Masks on Thursdays, as part of their weekly repertoire.
Despite day-to-day activities resuming in-person, a majority of senior centers are not yet comfortable celebrating with large fundraising events that include community members at this time. Perhaps, the summer will see a return of gun shows, door raffles, dances and more, but time will tell.
Curious about your center's re-opening plans? Give them a call during usual business hours or search for your local senior center by name on Facebook, as many centers are posting re-opening updates on social media feeds. Most senior centers also keep their newsletters on their websites, which include information on re-opening, virtual and in-person activity calendars and meal menus.