Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Sherry Heim has spent so much time alone in the past year that she has invented a new cast of imaginary friends.
The 70-year-old Albuquerque woman’s isolation has been so intense that she cites a trip to Walgreens for her annual flu shot as “almost exciting” because she wound up in a waiting area with other people just as hungry for human interaction as she was.
“We were all so eager to talk, it was not even funny,” Heim said.
But after a year of COVID-19-related solitude, Heim finally returned to her social element this month: She spent a recent Wednesday morning working on a 300-piece puzzle among a couple of other friends at the Highland Senior Center. The city recently reopened the facility on a limited basis as it resumes some activities at select senior centers and 50-plus fitness centers.
“We’ve missed this place,” Heim said while sitting at a table with the pieces spread before her. “It’s our club house.”
Heim has been a center devotee since she retired from the dental field about 3½ years ago. She came for the companionship of a puzzle group but also to use the fitness equipment and to eat lunch. She has also taken watercolor and Spanish classes there.
Highland Senior Center Manager Julianna Brooks said the center is gradually reintroducing certain activities with restricted, by-reservation participation and a slew of new protocols. Brooks said staff members disinfect high-touch areas constantly and perform a more thorough center cleaning at the end of the day. A sign at the center’s entrance also announces new requirements for visitors: They must wear face coverings, practice physical distancing and complete a wellness check before coming inside.
Only some programming has returned; the city is focusing for now on fitness and low-contact activities, and opportunities may vary by facility.
“We are moving cautiously to ensure safety of our visitors, staff and volunteers during this transition, but will be adding new programs as we are able,” Senior Affairs Director Anna Sanchez said in a written statement.
While Brooks said she does not have official data, she knows from conversations that many of the Highland users have now received COVID-19 vaccines, although it is not true for everyone. Heim, for instance, is still awaiting her shot.
As an 18-year veteran of the city’s Senior Affairs Department, Brooks said, she knows how important the center is to members. It is a community hub that many visited daily before COVID-19.
“It’s not just doing a puzzle,” she said. “It’s being around people.”
The same holds true at Los Volcanes 50-plus Fitness Center, where the city is now allowing scheduled, 45-minute workout sessions.
Longtime user Theresa Gutierrez, 78, said she particularly missed the other members during the center’s yearlong closure.
“It’s always more fun to work out with other people – see them sweat a little bit,” the retired hairdresser and fitness fanatic said with a laugh while waiting outside the center for a recent morning workout.
As exercisers streamed into the Northwest Albuquerque building for a recent session, several made a point of greeting the center custodian by name before heading to their favorite workout machines.
Some in the room had been near-daily visitors before the pandemic hit.
Without it, “I was lost,” 88-year-old Cosme Pohl said while pausing during a recent session to talk to a Journal reporter.
Pohl made do with situps, pushups and other home-based exercises during the closure but longed for the center’s range of equipment. The Korean War veteran, retired barber and Las Vegas, Nevada, poker dealer particularly likes the leg press, although he uses nearly every piece in the room.
Now that it’s reopened, he said, he intends to return every day.
“I enjoy doing exercises,” he said. “I feel better, and it feels good, and it’s good for your health.”
The city’s senior, multigenerational and 50-plus fitness centers were popular venues before the pandemic. Visitors logged more than 343,000 recreation and fitness sessions across the network in fiscal year 2019, according to city data.
But with COVID-19 emerging as a threat last spring, the city shut them March 17, 2020. Older adults are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 and those 65-plus have represented 81% of all U.S. deaths related to the virus, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
On closing the venues, Senior Affairs spokeswoman Kinsey Cooper said the department “pivoted services to focus on meals, care coordination, transportation, wellness check-ins on seniors and other critical support services.” The department has served nearly 744,000 senior meals since last March, handing them out at drive-up sites and delivering directly to residences. That is more than twice as many senior meals as the city served in the 12 months before the pandemic.
Brooks said staffers at Highland worked to maintain connections with members, even with the centers closed. They did drive-through “friendship coffee” events and tried to reach as many as possible by phone. She said they recognize the social toll the pandemic has exacted on the center’s membership.
“It was really heartbreaking,” she said.
National polling found that 56% of older Americans felt sometimes or often isolated from others in 2020 – more than double the number who reported the same two years earlier.
And about one-third of people ages 50 to 80 also reported having less companionship than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to polling completed last year for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy.
Sitting in the puzzle room/library with Heim earlier this month, 80-year-old Evelyn Dan and her 90-year-old friend Terry said that they missed the camaraderie at the center last year and that doing puzzles alone at home just was not the same. Dan said she was thrilled when she learned that the center was welcoming people back.
“I yelled … and said, ‘Hallelujah,’ ” Dan said.