Every day, people stop by the Astoria Senior Center, peer through the glass door and ask executive director Larry Miller, “So when do you expect to be open?”
The answer: He’s not sure.
The senior center temporarily closed almost a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, shutting down weekly activities and opportunities for seniors to connect, socialize and easily access a variety of resources. Now, Clatsop County’s risk level, which had toggled between high risk and extreme risk this winter, dropped to the cool green of lower risk and vaccine distribution has begun among the elderly.
“That tells me that perhaps something is going to happen,” Miller said.
The pandemic has been hard on seniors. Age and health concerns place them in the high risk category for the virus. Many already were living in isolation before the pandemic hit, reliant on places like the senior center for regular social interactions or even for help with getting to the grocery store.
Though Miller will occasionally let someone in to use a computer for necessary business, the only seniors who now routinely enter the building are the volunteers who help Roger Hayes prepare lunches for delivery and pickup with the Loaves and Fishes meals program that operates in tandem with the center.
One recent morning, two women divided packets of cookies into plastic sandwich bags. One of the women, Judy Choate, has been volunteering with the program for years. The work helped keep her busy and distracted during difficult times, she said.
Nearby, Hayes prepared other food. Originally from Michigan, Hayes is a multimedia artist and experimental musician. He has lived in Clatsop County for more than 30 years. For a good part of that time he worked in the mental health sector and he consistently finds himself drawn to work that is social service-adjacent.
“If I have to work, I want to do something that has a purpose,” he said. He likes to connect with people and understand them — in some ways it feels like a moral responsibility.
Which has made the pandemic even more difficult.
The lunch he used to serve in the dining room to members — or any senior who could spend $6 on a meal — functioned as the center of many of those people’s day. Hayes could look out and see that this was where people had important conversations. They discussed the news, their health, their friends. They checked in on each other.
“It’s hard to imagine all that gone,” Hayes said now, sitting at an empty table, among a sea of empty tables, in an empty dining room.
About half of the people who used to eat at the senior center or have meals delivered to them still come to pick up a sack lunch or ask for delivery. Most of them have means, pensions or Social Security. As far as Hayes knows, they almost all have consistent, reliable housing. And that’s another thing he thinks about: all the homeless seniors who used to rely on the center for a meal and a place to rest for a moment.
In the last few years, Hayes had started conducting interviews with the area’s homeless, hoping to better understand them and their situations. It was a sort of holdover from his days in social work, the long lists of questions you would ask people to try to gauge their situation and needs. He was inspired by the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who turned a camera on American institutions to chronicle a certain type of everyday life.
“I just thought it has value and it ended up teaching me a lot about where we are in our society right now,” Hayes said.
What he saw, both in his interviews with the homeless and his work in the kitchen making lunches for seniors, was how “there’s this trickle-down isolation that happens as people become increasingly marginalized.”
Though the pandemic limits his ability to reach people in the same way, Hayes tries to provide flexibility with the meals. If a senior is in need and reaching out maybe for the first time, Hayes tries to get them a free lunch.
Miller is also aware of this isolation — and how difficult and even damaging it can be for both housed and unhoused seniors.
He often fields phone calls from seniors who just want someone to talk to. He’s helped others fill out online forms to get in line for a coronavirus vaccination. Many do not have their own computers, or are not comfortable with navigating the technology.
“I think it’s pretty tough on them,” Miller said. “The senior center is still here for them. Everything we’ve done for them in the past, we’re still doing.”