MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — The parking lot was quiet, almost zen-like, as a group of senior citizens sat 6 feet apart silently meditating during a tai chi class. All of them wore masks and had their temperatures checked when they arrived.
Senior centers across New Jersey are still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the director at the Middle Township DeVico Senior Center in Cape May Court House decided to get creative and move some classes outside.
“We’re not a nutrition site,” said Marilyn Miller, director of the center. “So people don’t come and sit here all day long. They come for a morning activity or a particular class in the afternoon.”
Along with quarterly luncheons, the center, which has 150 to 200 members, holds regular classes on topics such as tai chi, zumba, computers and art, a knitting club and more. The center also runs bus trips, but that was all before the COVID-19 pandemic.
After being closed for six months, Miller decided to allow members to come back in early fall but participate in tai chi and zumba classes in the parking lot while practicing social distancing.
Miller is a member of multiple organizations, like the National Institute of Senior Centers, where she said members would have Zoom meetings throughout the pandemic to try and come up with creative ways to still serve seniors. Outside classes was one idea, and it worked.
“Everybody was just so happy to see each other and to hang out,” she said.
The class usually has about 20 participants, but for safety reasons the class is held two days a week with about 10 people each.
And since the senior center’s closure, Miller has kept up with all of the members by calling them to check in and gave them a list of food banks in the area. She still sends birthday cards and is in the process of making fall and holiday bags with goodies to give out. She also held a Halloween costume contest and gave out prizes.
Gov. Phil Murphy has given no indication for when senior centers can reopen, but Miller has already put safety protocols in place inside the building for when they get the green light.
For now, she’s happy she can bring members back, even if it’s just to the parking lot.
“It’s good for their mental health and their socialization,” she said. “They want to feel connected to somebody and something and to know that, ‘Hey, somebody’s thinking about me, I’m not just here alone.’
“I’m so happy to see them doing something and having fun,” she added. “I know they’re glad to see each other.”
Al Conly, 77, of West Cape May, was at Wednesday’s tai chi class. He’s been taking the class at the center for a few years.
“It gives you great balance,” he said. “At a certain age, you start to lose your balance a little bit, and one of the worst things you can do is fall. And it’s good meditation and relaxation in a stressful world.”
As he has early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, he tried doing tai chi and other exercises at home to keep active during the stay-at-home order.
“But there was a lot of sitting around too,” he said. “I read a lot of books and did a lot of puzzles.”
But being back, albeit outside, feels so good, he said.
“It just lets me relax a little more,” he said. “It’s something to look forward to.”
And when the pandemic is over, he’s looking forward to going out to a nice restaurant and sitting inside.
Rita Kirk, 66, of Cape May Court House, has been coming to the center for about 18 months and took multiple classes throughout the week.
When the center closed she felt horrible and depressed, but to keep active she started walking outside.
She never did tai chi before Miller brought classes outside, but said she’s so glad to be back, and that she loves tai chi.
“It helps you sleep,” she said.
And after the pandemic, she wants the same as Conley — to eat inside at a restaurant.
“And to not be scared anymore,” she said.
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