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With senior centers closed, the elderly are lonely

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Audrey Cupolo said she is heartbroken. Wheelchair bound, the East Norwich senior has depended on the Life Enrichment Center of Oyster Bay to give her life meaning, she said. The center was shuttered for programs and activities on March 13, following a directive from County Executive Laura Curran. Cupolo said a chapter of her life ended with the closure.

“The senior center is my second family,” Cupolo, 78, explained, her voice breaking. “It gave me a reason to get up in the morning, to get dressed, socialize and exercise.”

Many seniors are also dependent on the center for their lunch. At first Judy Palumbo, the executive director, tried to continue to provide the meal, encouraging older adults to stop by and take “grab and go” offerings – a light lunch. But by March 18, she became concerned that the exposure was too great for the seniors. The delivery of pre-made frozen meals daily to homebound members followed, but that ended on March 23 because Palumbo said she was concerned for the kitchen staff. Social distancing, she said, is difficult when preparing meals in a kitchen. The plan for this week was to deliver a weeks’ worth of food, which was done on Monday.  

Dan McGowan, 78, a retired New York City Transit Police Officer, has been a part time driver for the center for 20 years. He transports seniors to the center three times a week, something that he said he enjoys. 

Last week he home delivered the lunches, prepared by the center’s chef, Anthony Moschella. Many of the recipients of the food were the same people that he drives each day to the center. 

“The seniors were really grateful to get what we had, even though they will have to prepare it a little,” he said. “It’s very satisfying for us to do something for the seniors that they can’t do for themselves.”

He has developed a relationship with many, he said, and they depend on him. “Before this happened even in snow and rain nothing keeps the seniors’ home,” McGowan said. “They’d say to me, ‘Why do we want to stay home and look at the four walls?’”

John Cosgrove, 73, retired from the New York Police Department, also drives for the center.  “This is very hard for the seniors,” he said. “Some live alone and some are disabled. When I brought the food to the door they were so happy to see me, even though they couldn’t open the door to take it from me.”

The Life Enrichment Center has roughly 450 members. Its staff have been calling 70 of the seniors each day to see if they need food or medication. 

The county has provided some shelf stable meals — dry goods — that will be distributed to seniors that face a food shortage. And there are some meals in the center’s freezer for emergencies.

Palumbo said she is sure that the lunches are not the main reason why seniors come to the center. “They come here for the comraderies,” she said. “Those that have called said they miss the social circle terribly.”

The center is not alone in its efforts to help seniors. 

Seniors need help, more now than ever, said Legislator Josh Lafazan, an Independent from Woodbury. He posted a video on YouTube last week asking for volunteers to shop for seniors that can’t leave their home, either because of transportation issues or a fear of contacting the coronavirus. The next day many people called, he said.  

He paired volunteers, which include high school students and people who have their own children with seniors living in the same community. “They are people that want to give back,” Lafazan said.

Everyone has benefited in more ways than expected, he said. “The volunteer and senior establish a connection and are building a rapport,” said Lafazan, adding that he has nearly four dozen volunteers. “I’m in a position to put people together to make a difference. I feel like this is the most important part of my job — protecting those that are the most vulnerable among us.” 

Lafazan said for now he has more volunteers than seniors. He is encouraging those that wish to connect with a volunteer shopper to call (516) 571-6218.