Centers delivered food, had virtual programs

How Covid-19 impacted senior centers on the North Shore


When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, Long Island senior centers had more than the virus to worry about.

Many seniors were immune-compromised and unable to gather. As a result, senior centers saw their doors closed for months at a time, which left many wondering if they would ever be able to reopen.

Before Covid-19 arrived, many senior centers and senior-focused programs operated like well-oiled machines, working week in and week out to provide entertainment and companionship for the community’s elderly. Peggy Como, president of the Mutual Concerns Committee, in Sea Cliff, said that the organization held senior lunches at St. Luke’s Parish Hall, but a week after the pandemic arrived, the program came to an end.

“Once Covid hit, we had to shut it all down,” Como said. “People were in a panic. I was in a panic. I didn’t want to be responsible for anybody’s sickness.”

Similar scenes occurred across the North Shore and around the world. Judy Palumbo and Christine Rice, executive directors of the Life Enrichment Center at Oyster Bay and the Glen Cove Senior Center, respectively, added that it felt like the pandemic came out of nowhere and upended their work and the lives of their seniors.

Palumbo said that prior to the pandemic, the Life Enrichment Center had an average of 75 people coming in for lunch every day, and daily buses brought seniors in for physical and mental exercise as well as games and activities. Although Life Enrichment had been warned about the potential seriousness of the spreading virus by a concerned Oyster Bay resident, the hardest part initially was the suddenness of it all, although the center was able to avoid an outbreak among its members.

“I think there was a little bit of talk about it earlier in the year, maybe January or February, but at the time it was like it was distant,” Palumbo said. “You really didn’t know how badly it was going to affect us.”

Most seniors, due to advanced age or previous illnesses or conditions, were at risk and had to remain isolated, yet the same isolation that saved them from getting sick, took a toll on their mental and physical well-being, according to a 2022 study by the National Institutes of Health.

The need to satisfy the innately human need to socialize required quick thinking by the local senior service organizations which stayed in contact with many members over the phone and even provided the occasional lunch or goodie bag delivery.

Life Enrichment developed a grab and go program, serving to-go meals to seniors who picked them up at the back door without having to risk going inside.

The Glen Cove Senior Center and Life Enrichment also turned to online services to help provide connection and entertainment for the seniors trapped at home. Both organizations provided virtual exercise programs for seniors, and along with Mutual Concerns, offered outdoor lunch programs when viable.

Rice added that the pandemic provided the opportunity for care alternatives for the staff as well as the seniors.

“We were so worried about how many members we were going to lose, not only to the physical aspect of the disease but to depression, or isolation or loneliness,” Rice said. “So it was a tough time for all of them.”

Even as the pandemic began to wind down for the rest of the country, the senior centers and programs struggled to balance the natural desire of seniors to begin reintegrating with ensuring their safety. Three years after the pandemic arrived, its effects are still being felt.

Como said Mutual Concerns held its senior lunch twice a week before the pandemic, but only hold it once a week now. There were also serious concerns amongst the senior centers that they may not recover from the pandemic, whether due to financial concerns or from a sheer loss of members. Most have not been able to offer transportation on par with what they had before the pandemic.

Despite this, the three organizations agreed that the most uplifting aspect of the ordeal was seeing how much seniors missed and appreciated their programs and socialization opportunities. Even during the darkest days of the pandemic, they would get calls about when they were reopening and asking how soon the seniors would be able to see the staff and their friends again.