By Ray Richardson
INGLEWOOD — The late arrival of a taxicab gives Martha Milam more time for sentimental thoughts as she waits outside her apartment building.
Across the street is the Inglewood Senior Center, closed since March 16 because of COVID-19. In between looks for her taxi, Milam glances at the vacant center, where she regularly visited for activities, meals, events, services and smiling faces.
“You miss the people you became friends with,” said Milam, 87, a retired nurse. “I went over there just about everyday. There was so much camaraderie. It’s tough not to be there.”
The $28 million structure, which opened in 2018, is similar to many facilities throughout the area that had to shut its doors or turn away patrons due to the pandemic.
But as a facility catering to seniors, a demographic that places high value on “having something to do,” the center’s inactivity is particularly disappointing. More than 500 seniors in the Inglewood area are currently registered with the center for a variety of activities and services.
“For many of our seniors, the center is their sanctuary,” said Thomas Uwal, human services superintendent for the city of Inglewood and executive director of the center. “This is where they want to be. Our staff misses them.”
Since seniors are part of the population that is more at-risk from the virus, Uwal and his staff did not hesitate to close the center to comply with state of California health guidelines. Uwal knew closing the center would have a major impact on most of the seniors, many of whom don’t have families and used the center to escape isolation.
The center has more than 30 programs to keep seniors active, including a daily lunch in the center’s spacious dining room. To maintain connections with the seniors, Uwal and his staff make regular phone calls to check on them. Members of the center’s transportation unit continue to drive seniors to doctor appointments and dialysis treatments.
“We wanted to make sure their health and safety is protected during this difficult time,” Uwal said. “It’s important to have a human connection.”
Perhaps the most critical connection the staff is making during the pandemic is the center’s meals delivery program. All registered seniors have packaged meals delivered to their homes once a week. Enough meals are packaged to last a week before the next delivery.
For seniors with computer access at home, the center is offering daily virtual classes for chair exercises, line dance, Zumba, salsa and yoga.
“Whenever they open up again, I hope they bring back the choir,” said Annie Davis, 87, a retired computer operator for the Veterans Administration. “That was my thing. I like to sing. We sang a lot of gospel.”
Uwal said he receives “four to five calls” per week from seniors asking about when the center will reopen. As much as he would like to, he can’t give them a definitive answer. Uwal also is not ready to rush a return for the seniors, although the state has given clearance for some conditional reopenings.
“Once we’re told it’s safe for them to come back, we’ll reopen,” Uwal said. “Our seniors are the most vulnerable. Right now, the more they stay at home, the safer it is.”
In addition to isolation and inactivity, the center’s seniors will have to find a way to hold onto their patience. Many seniors understand why the center is closed. They just want COVID-19 to hurry up and go away.
“Man, I miss my dominos games,” said Anthony Bell, 68, a Chicago native. “Not much we can do but wait…and keep walking around the Forum. That’s what most of us are doing now.”
Inglewood seniors needing information or assistance, are advised to call the Senior Center at (310) 412-5338.
Ray Richardson is a freelance writer for The Wave. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.