Julie McDonald Commentary: It’s Past Time for Lewis County Senior Centers to Reopen


My husband and I recently drove the six-plus hours east to Pullman to celebrate our daughter’s 20th birthday party at her Washington State University apartment. What a treat to spend three evenings playing pinochle at the kitchen table without wearing masks.

Life is returning to normal, especially for those who have received the coronavirus vaccine.

I’ve missed the socialization and camaraderie of connecting with like-minded people at writers’ conferences and other social events during the past year. Humans are social beings; even the most introverted need to connect with others occasionally. That’s why it was so nice to see St. Helens Club members Wednesday when we held our first in-person meeting in more than a year. Of course, unlike with Zoom meetings, we actually had to dress from top to bottom instead of wearing sweats.

We’re also planning to hold the Southwest Washington Writers Conference in person in September. We have terrific presenters lined up to teach.

As we drove home from Pullman — another six-plus hours — I thought of the seniors in our community who have spent the past year isolated, unable to socialize or even hug their grandchildren because of caution about COVID-19. Most seniors have been vaccinated now, so restrictions have eased, thank goodness.

I’ve always considered our senior centers a gem in Lewis County, something that set us apart from other communities as we took care of our elders.

It’s well past time for Lewis County Seniors to reopen the centers in the Twin Cities, Winlock, Toledo, Morton, Packwood and Pe Ell.

Our seasoned citizens deserve the opportunity to shoot pool, play cards and reconnect after a year away from each other. I miss our aerobics class, which was held Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at the Toledo Senior Center, although our excellent instructor Pam Cole of Ethel decided to retire.

Last week, Ron Averill, president of Lewis County Seniors, told county commissioners the nonprofit plans to seek approval from the Lewis-Mason-Thurston Area Agency on Aging (LMTAAA) to reopen the centers, which have been closed since March 2020. However, he said the meal delivery program for more than 800 at-home seniors is taking much of the staff’s time. They’ve prepared more than 250,000 meals, which they’ll continue to do, so he said the centers may have to reopen on a rotating basis for a time.

But that’s frustrating for seniors tired of the delays, especially when centers in Mason, Thurston and Cowlitz counties are open.

“The Olequa Senior Board is unanimous in wanting the center open for socialization ASAP,” said Joanne Cobbs, board treasurer. “Our seniors are so lonely and our center is the only source of community for many of them. The majority are immunized as are the staff and volunteers.”

She said Winlock seniors volunteered a month ago to open for social hour, but the Lewis County Seniors board said no.

“We are supposed to be a team brought together for food and socializing for the seniors of Lewis County,” said Jodi Curtis, vice president, adding that the local center boards often feel ignored by the Lewis County Seniors’ executive board. “For those on the front line, this is about what is best for our seniors … not whether or not we make money. There are plenty of volunteers willing to staff and sanitize a senior center.”

But it’s not that simple, said Glenda Forga, executive director of Lewis County Seniors. Although she agreed with my comment that “it’s high past time” for the centers to reopen, she added, “The senior centers have many hoops to jump through prior to opening.”

Although Gov. Jay Inslee’s rules initially didn’t allow senior centers to fully reopen until Phase 4, he announced earlier this month that all restrictions could be lifted by June 30, or earlier if the 70 percent of those over 16 are vaccinated.

Forga said the board is looking toward reopening the centers, and cleaning and restocking of the buildings has started. A safe-opening plan must be designed to comply with all state and federal COVID-19 standards. She said the document is nearly complete and plans to reopen safely will be announced later this week.

“We work with older adults every day and are acutely aware of the need for socialization along with nutrition services,” Forga said, adding that Lewis County Seniors has been bombarded by requests to reopen, especially from seniors in Winlock. “Some of the requests have been normal inquiries; some have been outright demands with threats.”

“I still have to follow mandates and directives and can’t simply snap my fingers and open up,” Forga continued. “We are splitting our time between meal production and safe start preparations … All of us are doing everything we can to bring the centers back to normal and put this nightmare behind us.”

Forga said staff morale, already taxed by concerns over their seniors, has plummeted “to see all the negative, rude and threatening comments.”

The federally funded nutrition contract is “our centers’ primary service,” Forga said, and the staff can’t “shut off the faucet” to meal production.

“There will be a gradual reopening and phasing out of the emergency meal program so staff can eventually return to their sites, serving the meals at each center as before,” Forga said.

It can’t happen soon enough for seniors. With restaurants, granges and other organizations reopening, pressure to reopen will continue to mount.

As Judy Hunter of Centralia said in a letter to the editor, seniors need to see one another, share a cup of coffee, or play bingo, cards or pool. She said a dozen regulars at Toledo Senior Center had died since last April.

“COVID-19 didn’t take these people,” Hunter wrote. “Loneliness and isolation played more of a factor than COVID-19.”

In another letter, Thomas Hicker of Vader noted that schools, restaurants and churches have reopened, so why not the senior centers?

Olga Miller, who serves on the Lewis County Seniors board, shared her opinion not as a board member but simply as a senior eager for the centers to reopen.

“When I eat at local restaurants, they observe distance seating, and I meet older adults who are vaccinated and wear masks,” she said.

“A local grange has had monthly breakfasts for the past three months similar to observations at restaurants. I am certain the senior centers would observe similar precautions.

“More importantly, Lewis County senior centers are more than just a place to eat a meal,” Miller continued. “They are safe gathering places to enjoy various activities and a place to make and meet friends. Also, our seniors support their local centers as volunteers. So yes, it is time to reopen the senior centers in our county.”

I couldn’t agree more.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.