Goodman’s Older Adult program is again engaging the over 50 crowd on-site
By Amie Hoag, GCC Director of Communications and Annual Giving
On a sunny Monday afternoon at the Goodman Community Center, a group of about 20 older adults gathered (safely distanced) for lunch. This time last year, gathering like this wasn’t possible.
Before COVID-19, the Center was a Dane County meal site for seniors, serving a hot, nutritiously balanced lunch Monday through Friday. From March 2020 through August 2021, those meals had to shift to being delivered. The seniors returned to in-person at GCC in September. “I’m glad to be back,” said Art Paul Schlosser, a local artist and musician, and GCC Older Adult program regular. “I’m glad to have this really nice place to hang out at.”
Schlosser is not alone in his happiness at being back at Goodman. The joy in the room was palpable. While Schlosser and his friends ate, Gayle Laszewski made the rounds, checking in on the seniors who were at the Center for lunch. Laszewski has been the Older Adult manager at Goodman for the last nine years. For her, returning to in-person meals brought with it mixed emotions.
“Frankly, I had to manage my own anxiety about bringing the most vulnerable population back on-site and feeling OK about that. That they’re going to be safe. I’m doing the right thing,” she said.
There are a lot of reminders about distancing and masks, Laszewski said. Safety is top of mind for her.
Since bringing the meals back on-site, Laszewski and her team have reintroduced some old favorite activities and few new options for seniors to engage with each other. Euchre and bingo are back on-site, as well as some of the fitness activities like tai chi. The Center’s senior lounge is open again, hosting game days and live book readings, as well as drop-in computer tech assistance.
There are virtual options as well: support groups and bingo for those who don’t feel comfortable coming on-site, and a live cooking class hosted by some University of Wisconsin medical students.
“We’re offering the same number of programs as we did before COVID,” Laszewski said proudly. “And I’m really proud that our participant numbers have maintained the same throughout COVID because we were able to adjust and figure out how to continue to reach this vulnerable population.”
Made for this work
“This was supposed to be a temporary thing for me,” Laszewski said, chuckling as she thought about it. Nearly a decade later, she’s still at it, managing a program that has transformed in the time she’s been leading it.
Laszewski has the health and psychology background for the job — having studied both in college — but perhaps more importantly, she has the heart for it. While we were chatting via Zoom, someone came into her office to let her know one of the regular seniors was in the hospital. Laszewski’s face fell. It’s like each one of these seniors is a part of her family, she cares that much.
“The thing that amazes me about Gayle and her team is that each person in our Older Adult program is supported individually. It takes a special person to do what Gayle does.”
It comes through in the way the seniors feel about her too.
Robert Strand, a regular Older Adult program participant for the last 25 years, keeps coming back to the Center “because of Gayle,” he said. “She always has something to keep us active, always new things. She really cares.”
Laszewski recalled a story from one of her first years working with Goodman’s older adults.
“One winter, I found out one of our older adults was sleeping in his car in the Walgreens parking lot,” Laszewski recalled. “It was going to be 30 below zero that night. I knew he’d freeze if he stayed there. So, I got in my car, drove to Walgreens, knocked on his window and talked him into letting me drive him to a shelter.”
Not every case is that dramatic, thank goodness, but this is the commitment that has impressed Goodman’s CEO/Executive Director Letesha Nelson as she’s gotten to know Laszewski and her team.
“The thing that amazes me about Gayle and her team is that each person in our Older Adult program is supported individually,” Nelson said. “It takes a special person to do what Gayle does.”
The risk of loneliness for seniors
A single idea rests at the center of Laszewski’s mission of health and wellness for our aging population: “I don’t want any older adult to ever feel like they’ve been forgotten.”
With her health background, Laszewski knows that loneliness poses a serious health risk, particularly to the older adult population. Lack of social connection heightens health risks, increases the risk of premature death and is associated with a 40% increase in dementia. Research has found that engaging older adults in community can reduce feelings of loneliness.
When the coronavirus hit in March 2020, Laszewski understood how quickly loneliness would creep in for older adults. She took swift action to mitigate that risk.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘How in the world am I going to reach everybody to make sure they’re OK?’” she said.
Within a few days, Laszewski had worked with the Goodman volunteer manager and her contacts in the University of Wisconsin social work program to assign volunteers to older adults for phone check-ins. Then came the meal delivery. There were seniors who relied on Goodman for a hot meal Monday through Friday.
Once that was in place, Laszewski’s mind shifted to the activities. She started talking to her colleagues at area senior centers: NewBridge, Monona Senior Center and Madison Senior Center.
“When the pandemic first hit, we were all struggling,” Laszewski said. “We had to figure out how to do virtual programming for a population that’s not generally tech savvy. And we weren’t super tech savvy ourselves. We had a lot to learn.”
“A lot of the people who play (virtual) bingo are our oldest participants. We had to teach them how to use Zoom. We had to help people call-in on their phone.”
Goodman got the ball rolling first with virtual yoga, gentle fitness and tai chi classes. Then, they tackled bingo. Laszewski got in touch with GCC’s bingo callers and asked if they’d be willing to try virtual bingo. Then, they got to work testing it out. Laszewski brought the bingo spinner home and they did a dry run over the phone.
“I never in a million years thought I’d be sitting at the kitchen table with a bingo spinner,” Laszewski laughed.
But that was just the beginning. “We had to figure out how to get the seniors cards. How do we do prizes? What about people who don’t have the internet?” said Laszewski. “A lot of the people who play bingo are our oldest participants. We had to teach them how to use Zoom. We had to help people call-in on their phone.”
As the weeks stretched on and it became increasingly obvious things wouldn’t return to normal for some time, Laszewski and her team introduced a drive-thru coffee hour.
“It was intended to be a drive-thru, but our older adults wanted to stay and visit,” said Laszewski.
So Laszewski and her team adjusted. They set out chairs 6 feet apart. They required masks when seniors weren’t drinking. They kept it exclusively outside. And the number of attendees grew from a handful to about 25 per week. When it started to get cold, Laszewski and her team announced the coffee hours would have to stop, but the older adults asked “Why?” They were willing to risk the cold to be with their friends.
A community that is family
For Sharon Bartosch, the outdoor coffee hours were her lifeline. “I looked forward to Fridays. I had it circled on my calendar,” she said. Then she started to choke up. “I can’t talk about it because it makes me cry. I didn’t do things on the computer, so it meant a lot that we could be together one day a week.”
And that is why as the winter dragged on, the group of regulars continued to insist they could handle the cold, and why the volunteers who set up the coffee and served the seniors said they could handle it too. The temperature at which they agreed to cancel reached 20 degrees.
In March, Bartosch and her husband John celebrated their wedding anniversary at an outdoor coffee hour. For most our older adults, Goodman is an extended family. For some, it’s the only family they have.
“Sharon and John’s anniversary was my first time meeting the older adults,” said Nelson, who had started with Goodman just two months before. “Sharon introduced me to everyone as if I were a niece of hers and to John as if I were a long-lost relative. She shared pictures of her young married life with John from an album she brings all the time. It was awesome.”
Awesome. That’s exactly the feeling that comes with spending time with Goodman’s older adults. The atmosphere is filled with welcoming and love.
“If you’re a senior and you’re lonely, come,” said Bartosch. “You don’t have to be sitting at home lonely. Come to the Goodman Center.”
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