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Senior Centers Face Tough Choices Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Photo by Carter Barrett/Side Effects Public Media.
Toby Salyers is executive director of the George T. Goodwin community center in Indianapolis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people over 65 have the highest risk for deadly complications from the new coronavirus. So they’ve been told to stay quarantined. But loneliness can trigger other serious health problems in seniors, like depression or dementia. This has left senior centers facing tough decisions about staying open.

The George T. Goodwin community center is usually bustling at lunchtime with thirty or forty seniors. After lunch, there might be a BINGO game or yoga classes. 

This week, it’s unusually quiet. 

“I’ll tell you the honest truth, I kind of rushed it to get here because I thought there would be more people here today than what there is,” J.D Hunter, 79, says. “Ain’t nobody here.”

Hunter is one of just a handful of folks at the center sitting in the hard plastic chairs that can be sanitized. He heard that seniors need to be careful amid the coronavirus outbreak, but decided to come anyway.

“We like to come and B-S, and eat food and hangout,” Hunter says. 

Hunter is a regular at the center on Indianapolis’ southwest side -- a nonstop string of lighthearted jokes and jabs. 

“I come down here and I get a bunch of these people laughing, that doesn’t laugh very often,” Hunter says, “If jokes on me, I’ll laugh the hardest.” 

The CDC recommends that people in high-risk groups -- like those over 65 or with underlying health conditions -- stay home as much as possible. But executive director of the community center Toby Salyers decided to keep it open. 

Credit Photo by Carter Barrett/Side Effects Public Media.
Food from the community center's pantry was brought outside to limit visitors.

“I've worked so hard to make this, in my opinion, one of the most welcoming inclusive places anyone has ever been,” Salyers says. 

The Goodwin center is in a neighborhood where the average income is just over $20,000 a year. It offers hot meals, a group meeting space, a food pantry and child care. It also helps people sign up for social services like Medicaid. 

Salyers made the difficult choice to shutter or alter almost all of the center’s programming due to the coronavirus outbreak -- with one exception.

“Right now, with so many things unknown, and my priority on feeding seniors, I have to protect them,” Salyers says. “I just have to.”

There’s now a doorbell on the front entrance. It defies the come-as-you-are spirit of the center, that welcomes all -- but now it's an unfortunate necessity. 

“I never in my wildest dreams thought I would need a doorbell,” Salyers says. “But right now, you know, I just can't let it... I just can't let everybody in right now.” 

Salyers hired deep cleaning services and now wipes down all high-traffic areas three times a day. He says it’s worth it. 

“I think the meals are important, and I think that they're wonderful and helpful,” Salyers says. “But I think socialization is just as important for seniors, because a lot of them, their kids have moved away. A lot of them don't have family to check on them, or see that they're okay.” 

The National Institute On Aging says loneliness among seniors is linked to a number of health concerns, including cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease. 

“Depression rates could go up, delirium or acute confusion could go up,” health policy professor John Hirdes, a researcher at Canada’s University of Waterloo says. “For lack of activity may lead to functional decline is all kinds of secondary consequences we also have to be vigilant with.” 

It’s hard to compare that to the risk posed by COVID-19 -- early data estimate the mortality rate is between 10-27 percent for people over 85. That’s why senior centers have shut down in Indianapolis and other cities. 

About a month ago, Salyers says one of the newer seniors asked him for a hug. He asked her if something was wrong. 

“She said, ‘I feel like this place saved my life…. my husband died last October, and I've done nothing but stare at the walls ever since.” 

She told Salyers the center gave her a new purpose and meaning in life. 

For Salyers, that’s a good reason to stay open, and is worth all the precautions.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Carter is a reporter for Side Effects Public Media and WFYI in Indianapolis. She can be reached at