Michigan seniors mourn the closing of activity centers during coronavirus

Flint area senior Sherry Vondeling was a regular at the Clio Area Senior Center: “Now there is absolutely nothing to do.” (Courtesy photo)

Tapping into what seems like a lifetime ago, Sherry Vondeling recalled the pace of her days before COVID-19 struck Michigan.

On any given day, she would leave home to visit one of three senior centers in the Flint area, where she met new friends for lunch, or chicken and mashed potato cookouts. She played cards, bingo, dominoes ─ or took bus treks to area casinos or monthly mystery dinners.

This was her life.

“I was busy all the time,” said Vondeling, 71, who lives alone in a one-story home in Clio.

But with senior centers still largely shut down because of the coronavirus, Vondeling is up against a stark new reality.

“It all came to a screeching halt,” she told Bridge. “Now, there is absolutely nothing to do. The feeling? It’s depression.” 

Senior advocates relay similar accounts among vulnerable clients of senior centers across Michigan.

For many, the shuttering of these activity centers is akin to the loss of family and geriatric experts warn that could exact a toll on the mental health of a population already at risk from social isolation.

At many centers, the pandemic is eating into their bottom lines – and could cause a few of the state’s estimated 350 senior centers to close.

“For many of our seniors, these centers are their whole life,” said Nicole Driesenga, volunteer and center coordinator for Kent County’s Senior Neighbors, which manages five senior centers in the county.

“A lot of our seniors are single, by divorce or the loss of their spouse. There is a sense of family when you go to the center. You have someone to sit with and talk to.

“What I hear over and over from seniors is that the most depressing thing is eating at home alone.”


Peter Lichtenberg, director of Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology, offered his view that, overall, most U.S. older adults “are coping pretty well” during the pandemic.

That’s borne out by a U.S. Census national survey from May that found 22 percent of adults aged 60 to 69 reported feelings of anxiety and 18 percent depression. That fell below the percentage among all adults, of whom 30 percent reported anxiety and 24 percent depression.

But Lichtenberg told Bridge it’s a different story for a subgroup of isolated seniors, who depend on senior centers for much of their socialization and emotional bonds.

“For this group, this is an incredibly stressful time. The pandemic limits so much of the kinds of connections that people need during this time. We worry a lot about depression in this group, and about loneliness and anxiety,” he said.

Indeed, multiple studies find links between social isolation in older adults and an array of physical and mental health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and depression, findings that echo Bridge Michigan’s recent reporting on nursing home residents.

The toll on seniors comes amid high numbers of COVID-19 deaths in Michigan nursing homes, with 2,082 nursing home residents confirmed dead from the new  coronavirus as of Monday ─ nearly a third of a state death total, which exceeds 6,300. That doesn’t count the unknown number of seniors who have died in the state’s assisted living facilities, group homes and homes for the aged, since the state does not compile those totals.

Michigan’s senior centers closed in March with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. Many reopened in July. But that came with severe limits on center activities, since a July 29 statewide executive order restricts indoor social gatherings to no more than 10 people.

In the meantime, senior centers are scrambling to reach clients any way they can. In some cases, that means bingo by phone or an exercise class via Zoom. Instead of group lunches, they dish up takeout meals.

But this has its limits. Some seniors have no Internet access. Others have phones with restricted minutes that rule out games like telephone bingo. Still others are too hard of hearing or technology averse to join in remote games or classes.

What’s missing: face-to-face contact, the squeeze of a hand on a shoulder, a gentle hug.

“That physical touch is incredibly important to so many of them. It’s amazing what that can mean for many of my people,” said Bruce Burger, director of the Clio Area Senior Center north of Flint. He’s also president of the Michigan Association of Senior Centers, which represents about 135 senior centers.

Bruce Burger, president of the Michigan Association of Senior Centers, said the pandemic is crippling senior center fundraising. (Courtesy photo)

After months of total shutdown, the Clio center opened its door in July to a few activities ─ a wood-carving class that draws about four seniors, a crochet group that used to see 20 seniors but now has just a couple. Gone are daily indoor lunches, a line-dancing class that pulled in dozens of seniors and Friday bingo that brought in upward of 70.

Burger said the pandemic has also hampered the centers’ ability to raise funds they need to keep their doors open.

The Clio center gets about 40 percent of its funds from the Genesee County senior millage, Burger said ─ with much of the rest raised from dances, garage and bake sales and the like, fund-raising efforts that have also ground to a halt. 

Burger said Michigan’s senior centers get funding from a variety of sources, including dedicated county millages, funding from their regional Area Agency on Aging and center-based fundraising activities.

Burger said the Clio center lost $2,000 to $3,000 in fundraising revenue each month since March.

“We are blessed to have a fund balance we can rely on. But savings don’t last forever,” he said.

Centers across the state face similar budget gaps, he said. “It could be only two or three, but that’s two or three too many,” he said.

North of Flint, Margaret Polkinhorn lives in a Mount Morris mobile home park with her husband of 56 years, Donald. He was diagnosed with dementia in 2012 and today can’t remember the names of the couple’s children or even how many they have, Margaret told Bridge.

Before the pandemic, Margaret, 77, drove Donald, 82, five days a week to the Clio senior center, where he whiled away the hours with acquaintances, playing games and watching television.

Margaret Polkinhorn relied on the Clio center as a home away from home for her husband, Donald, who has dementia. (Courtesy photo)

Margaret said that added vital structure to his days.

“It gave him something to look forward to. He made a lot of friends that way.”

Those trips also gave her welcome relief from the toll of an around-the-clock vigil with Donald.

“I could run errands. I could get my housework done, at some points just sitting down doing nothing. It’s nice not to have to keep an eye on him every hour of the day. We live near a small lake and I have to watch him so he doesn’t go off wandering.”

But that routine came to a halt when the center closed down.

In the months since, Margaret’s tried to make the best of things.

“Now, wherever I go, he comes with me,” she said.

She said there are moments at home when her responsibilities for Donald all but overwhelm her. She’s not alone ─ and yet sometimes she feels she is.

“I go to the far end of the home and let out a little cry. I don’t want Donald to know that I am crying. But I just have to let loose what’s inside of me.”

Driesenga of Kent County’s Senior Neighbors said growing numbers of isolated seniors are questioning whether the ongoing freeze of center activities ─ imposed for their protection from COVID-19 ─ is worth it.

“They would rather take the chance of getting the virus than living months on end like this,” she said.

Jane Ringler, director of a Senior Neighbors senior center in the small city of Sparta in a rural area north of Grand Rapids, is hearing similar sentiments.

“Some of the seniors have said that you get up there in years and you don’t know when your last year of life will be. They are saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is no life.’”

In the meantime, Ringler said she’s also heard from seniors afraid they might die alone at home and that no one would miss them for days. Others tell her their mental faculties are slipping away amid weeks of isolation.

She recalled two seniors who showed up at the center door about a week ago, women whom she said were normally “very positive and smiling.”

“One was near tears. The other looked like she was so depressed,” she said.

Senior Joyce Baker has lived alone for 13 years in a small home in northern Kent County following the death of her husband. She has no family in the area.

“I got depressed and I’m not a depressed-type person,” said Kent County senior Joyce Baker. (Photo by Ted Roelofs)

So the Sparta center had been her second home, her daily go-to destination for games and good times with friends.

“It was wonderful. I was very happy,” she said.

When the center shut down, Baker said, “I got depressed and I’m not a depressed-type person. I was going to call the doctor and ask for pills.”

She decided instead to try to fight her way through without medication. She’s taken up reading, including a recommended book on Shakespeare that she felt went a bit over her head. She takes walks, talks to friends on the phone.

But it’s not the same.

She wants her center back as it was, even if it means rolling the dice with COVID-19.

“I am in the last stages of my life,” she said. “I want to get in every bit I can. I want it now.” 

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Vicki Parker
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 6:41pm

My mother got sick while on a short trip to FL. Her dementia heightened as a result and we found a private pay memory care center so she could have as much quality in her last years as possible. Due to loneliness she went backwards and ended up in hospice. The only good about that part is we get a chance in full PPE to see her. As soon as she saw us (daughters were able to get in due to hospice status) she said I knew if I got sick then my girls would get in to see me. This is a travesty. During that same time by brother in law’s mom died alone in a home. They are right it’s no life.

I call BS
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 7:10pm

I'm mourning the loss of my senior friends who died unnecessarily from covid-19.

Tue, 08/18/2020 - 9:29am

Why spend $$ on studies? Its only common sense - without the senior centers or other activities, seniors have been discriminated against. Perhaps it should be a state health emergency?? My parents who are 90+ and still activate and by May they had enough of sitting around 'to be safe', so they have been going out and doing their normal activities. What does the governor want them to do - sit locked up in their house watching TV until their time is up? They only have so many 'marbles left in their life jar'.

Tue, 08/18/2020 - 11:56am

Why the studies and why not 'common sense'; there are a few reasons first we are talking about the media, the politicians, and the academics none of them benefit from 'common sense'. How would academics get the funding for many of their studies and especially for those focus on the social 'sciences' if they were to apply ' common sense' to the questions or topics they are asking for money to pay themselves to study?
When have you heard a politician use 'common sense' to justify spending other people's money, when have heard a politician willing to trust or expect reasonable actions from individual citizens? Even today, our governor won't trust seniors to apply the social distancing so she closes the senior centers while demanding that elementary kids wear respiratory masks and turn teachers into social enforcers. As for the media when have we ever read an article when the headline wasn't some exaggeration of social comment. Even the the headline for this article use the word mourn as if the closing of the centers is equivalent to the loss of a loved one.

If 'common sense' were to be applied to the senior centers there would have been a description of how to protect each other and ourselves rather then simply saying 6 feet, masking, and closing the centers. 'Common sense' say don't touch [stay more than two arms length apart], don't let you sneezes, coughs, breathing put the virus in the air [wear a mask], meet and be active and prevent the spread of the virus [keep the surfaces, table, equipment, chair arms, clean by wiping with antibacterial solutions]. What is disappointing that here in Michigan the powers that be never consider the experience and 'common sense' of the seniors and didn't bring a small group together to consider the problem [closing the senior centers] and be ask to apply their long earn 'common sense' to helping protect seniors while allowing them to stay active. Not even Bridge with all the listening outreaches they do considered doing an outreach to seniors about how to help seniors stay active, stay healthy, we must not be that important, that experienced, that well educated for them to listen to.

'Common sense' discourages politicians for exerting power and bluster, it is not an emotional headline for the media, and it does justify money for academics to spend on new projects.

I wonder what ideas seniors have to open the senior centers, the places where seniors are active,

Robyn A Tonkin
Tue, 08/18/2020 - 10:29am

This is the latest in a string of articles you have put in the Bridge about how awful it is to be alone and without socializing during the pandemic. I think everyone gets it by now. I do feel for these people. The lady caring for her husband has an extremely difficult task. There must be a state agency tasked with helping people in her situation. However, it is about time you put something in the bridge about old people who are doing okay during the pandemic, and who are not depressed by staying at home. My husband and I are continuing to shelter at home by and large. We're outside every day hiking in the woods and bicycling. He welds in the garage. I sew, including spending untold hours researching, and then buying, the best polypropylene fabrics for masks, and making masks for our little family. We own two houses and we still go between them. One needs a new retaining wall, that we are going to build. the other is getting a new kitchen, that we are building. My husband is 71, and I am 66. The ready-to-assemble cabinets for the kitchen were off-loaded into the front yard at the beginning of the pandemic by a brave young trucker. We mow the grass, grow flowers, take care of the dog, read books. My husband works on the cars and I make all the food. But we were doing that anyway. If one of us passes away, the other one will carry on leading a full life. I grew up in Trenton, surrounded by positive people as family role models--doughty old women who had gotten through WWI, the Depression and WWII--and the Spanish Influenza. They led by example, and we are following their lead. Keep calm, carry on, and find something to celebrate in each day.

Global grief
Tue, 08/18/2020 - 2:14pm

We are all getting depressed at times. I agree with you. No one group of people have a monopoly on suffering through this. Imagine all the old lonely people living in poverty; imagine the fears of people who must live with older relatives always wondering if they are inadvertently exposing them to the virus. My parents in their 90's are living with us during this time and they are usually more cheerful than the rest of us! Of course they too have their moments of sadness, but they seem more resilient than the rest of us, especially the youngest among us.

Tue, 08/18/2020 - 3:37pm

Some people do not know what it is like to live without a spouse through death, so please do not judge when you have not.

Tue, 08/18/2020 - 12:39pm

This is a tough one for many but there are probably some like myself that are surviving quite well through this mess. I'm 82 and among other things am care giver for my wife who is 86.

Neither of us has ever darken the door of a senior center so I guess we don't know what we have missed. Since we married over 60 years ago we have never lived near family in any of the five states where I was employed. We have always managed on our own through various medical situations.

This is not a pleasant situation but we are happy to still be alive and want to continue staying safe until it's safe to venture out safely again.

Tue, 08/18/2020 - 3:30pm

What is wrong with visiting outside one patient at a time with mask and distance other then they are probably under staffed. Nursing home patients should be priority not whoever makes the rules. Hire more people if they can be found just for that purpose.

middle of the mit
Tue, 08/18/2020 - 7:30pm

There shouldn't be a problem with distance visiting. They are just understaffed. And yes, nursing home patients should be prioritized, but that is not how economics in America works.

And if America worked like conservatives think it does, they shouldn't need to pay anyone, those who have relatives in the homes would be the ones volunteering to do such things. But this is America. And we only think about ourselves. Selfishness is a virtue ya know.


middle of the mit
Tue, 08/18/2020 - 6:53pm

I think I have to agree with Robyn. This is the second such article about how bad seniors have it while being shielded from a virus that could take away their last remaining years and turn them into the last remaining month while being isolated among others who would be on ventilators and ICU personnel. I guess that is better than being stuck at home trying to find something to take up your time?

If this is the reporting we are getting around the State, then we should open up everything and do what Republicans say we should. Let the chips fall where they may, and if you get it? Take some advice from Herman Cain. Blame your self!

There should be no more hampering about COVID deaths in nursing homes. If things are open, the spread will be unstoppable. If you think it won't hit senior centers like it did nursing homes........blame your self!

The Southern States are now quarantining schools they just opened! Why? OPEN it UP! Let it spread! This is the way conservatives say it should be.

Let it be! And then blame yourself!