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Sandel Center keeps seniors connected

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Almost a year into a pandemic that has turned people into homebodies, the social isolation experienced by many senior citizens has been particularly worrisome. But Rockville Centre’s Sandel Senior Center has continued to support local seniors in a variety of ways throughout the health crisis, and many are thriving with the help of its services.

The center itself was closed to members for over seven months, but the staff adapted in order to provide the necessary outreach to people, to ensure they were still receiving the services they needed and maintaining their connection to the facility, which was critical to both their physical and emotional health.

Early on, Director Chris O’Leary and her staff created the “Sandel at Home” program, with the village’s help. Every week, O’Leary conducts interviews and incorporates exercise into the televised program, which airs daily on the village’s public access TV channels. The program features fitness, art, music and cooking classes, and guests have included owners of local businesses, including gift shops, restaurants and bakeries.

In November, the center was finally ready to reopen to members, and while only a fraction of them have returned thus far, they have confirmed that having a place to socialize is invaluable for them.

Lilly Carroll, 84, goes to the center every day, taking the 10:30 a.m. exercise class, then staying to either play games or enjoy the other offerings, which vary daily and could include a guest speaker, a movie or a group activity.

“During the pandemic, they have been so good,” Carroll said of the Sandel staff. “I was very happy when it reopened, and they take great precautions to keep us safe. Everyone is so caring — they make sure we’re OK, safe and entertained. It’s been a lifesaver, really. After almost a year of staying home, friends dying, it keeps my mind occupied and gives me a respite from everything else that’s going on.”

While the center was closed, Carroll, who has been a member for nine years, said she stayed home and relied on her daughter to bring her food. “I was bored,” she said, though she did watch “Sandel at Home” regularly.

Marge DePhillips, 80, a member for three years, has been the corresponding secretary for two years. “I enjoy it very much,” she said. “The people are wonderful and the workers do everything for us. They go out of their way to make us happy.”

Before the pandemic, the center held monthly birthday brunches for members celebrating birthdays. The honorees would be showered with cards from other members, DePhillips said, and the dining room would fill up with 10 people per table. Now, celebrations are on hold, but she has taken on the task of making sure all of the members are remembered on their special day. “I write up the cards and sign it from the Sandel Center members and staff,” she said. “It makes them feel good.”

DePhillips also said she has made a point of keeping in touch with other members throughout the pandemic, calling those who still aren’t ready or able to return comfortably, and sending cards to those who are ill or recovering from an illness. Keeping those connections is important, she said, and for her, interacting with others is a priority.

DePhillips, who lives in Oceanside, said she heads to the center three times a week, and will be there from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. “It’s so good to see people and to be able to talk to people,” she said. “It really makes your day.”

O’Leary said she has been pleased with how the facility has been operating. The 10:30 exercise classes feature rotating instructors. The center doesn’t serve lunch, but members are welcome to bring their own.

“The members have been extremely cooperative about social distancing and masking,” O’Leary said. “They’re worried about their fellow members and respectful of each other’s health.”

She said she has also been impressed by how many members have adapted to the circumstances by learning new skills and embracing the technology that keeps people connected, such as Zoom and telehealth services.

“Seniors have such resilience,” O’Leary said. “People are resolved to make the best of things. Even those at home are still looking on the bright side, which is very inspiring.”