Cuauhtemoc and Rita Torres were regulars at the Las Palmas Senior Center in the City of San Fernando. Monday through Friday, the couple could be found chatting with friends, dining, or helping out in the morning beginning at 8 a.m., and returning home after 2 p.m.
But the pandemic curtailed that routine.
“We were used to the camaraderie there, talking to people,” said Cuauhtemoc Torres, 82. “By the time we returned home, half of the day was gone and it wasn’t so bad.”
When asked about being away from their friends the past 18 months, Torres said he and his wife “were bored” from being locked in.
“You don’t even feel like getting up,” he said.“We wanted to go back (to the park).”
But, so far, they have not. And neither have many of the other 85-100 “regulars” at the center, which reopened in May with a limited schedule of activities.
“It’s like a library, very quiet. Before, in the mornings, there was a lot of movement, a lot of activity. Now we don’t get more than five people at a time and the visits are very spread out,” said Juan Salas, a supervisor of Community Services for the City of San Fernando.
“We currently do workshops, loteria, and bingo indoors. We’re following all the protocols — temperature checks and all that,” Salas said. “The exercises are all done outdoors because it’s hard to exercise with a mask on. But the heat has been a hurdle; we’re planning in late August to do more outdoor exercise classes.”
Current classes include chair Zumba and regular Zumba dance, strength and balance exercises, painting, and arts and crafts — all done outside.
There are only a few attendees.
The Fourth of July bingo had 21 people. Zumba had 13. Walkable Wednesday — where a staff member walks around the Las Palmas Park with seniors — had nine participants while chair Zumba had six.
A workshop on depression had 10 people present, and loteria had 21.
“The numbers aren’t as high as before. But we think once the weather feels cooler we may have more people,” Salas said.
The pool room — a favorite of many seniors — remains closed because it’s not large enough for people to maintain safe social distancing, Salas said.
“Sometimes we would have about 30 seniors in there,” the supervisor said. “We’re scared of opening it up. We were thinking [of limiting it] to six people, an hour per person. But how do you sanitize the sticks? And they’re all touching the [billiard] balls.
“We just couldn’t do it. We didn’t want to frustrate everyone,” he added.
The surging numbers of COVID-19 Delta variant cases have affected plans to expand the center’s programs.
“Over the past months things were loosening up and then we had to stop a lot of plans because of the Delta variant,” Salas said.
“In May all the seniors were happy, saying, ‘I’m vaccinated.’ Then the protocol of wearing a mask scared everybody away. And now Delta has scared people again.”
Torres is one.
He said he and his wife always wear a mask. And Torres chastises “all those “cabezones” (knuckleheads) who won’t wear one, or won’t get vaccinated.
Adapting to the times
In March 2020, when the pandemic was declared, the center’s senior programs had to be modified.
Staffers reorganized several activities on Zoom, learning first how to use the program and then teaching it to the seniors.
“We first started with Facebook Live because a lot of seniors already had it. Then we started [using] Zoom,” Salas said.
The center also developed Tech Wednesdays, where seniors could come to the park and a staff member would show them how to better use their phones and computers, guiding them step by step.
Sometimes the instruction was done by phone, but “it was a little trickier,” Salas said.
“We started with five people on Zoom and by the end there were some 25. We did notice that people were reluctant to use it at first, but once people got the hang of it, they got more comfortable.”
What has never failed to draw the public, and remains popular, is the lunch program run by Los Angeles County. The meals — modeled after “TV dinners” — are delivered every week to all those registered in the program.
“They can call to opt-out, or opt-in if they qualify,” Salas said. “At worst, it took two weeks to get into the system. Now if they call on Monday, they can sometimes have it delivered by Tuesday.”
But sometimes the deliveries can take all day. Torres said his deliveries are still coming, but admits the frozen food “is not as appetizing” as the lunch served at the park. Companionship is also missing from the equation.
Once a month, the seniors receive a box with powdered milk, spaghetti, juice and other food.
The park staff has continued the wellness checks it began making on seniors in March 2020. Initially, hundreds of calls a day were made. Now, with fewer restrictions and people more willing to go out, they do so when the staff has the time. They focus more on people who are not mobile.
One thing that is not returning for the time being, however, is the Senior Club that organized dances, outings and other activities at the park.
“We know they want to meet. But all it takes is one person to get sick and — whether it happens here or not — they’re going to blame the park,” Salas said.
“That’s the last thing we want. Then they wouldn’t come back. We know they want to socialize but it’s not worth it.”
Torres admits to being impatient about reopening the Senior Club. He and his wife recently attended a funeral for a friend who used to go to the park, and saw a lot of their friends.
“Everyone was saying, ‘we want to come back.’ Everyone wants to go back to the dances, get together and talk. But it seems like that’s not happening for now,” Torres said.
Salas is sympathetic, but added the public’s health is more important.
“They know we still care. But their safety will always come first,” he said.
The Las Palmas Park Senior Center is open Monday through Friday. If you want to participate in the programs offered there, you can register at the center, located at 505 S. Huntington Street in San Fernando, or call (818) 898-7340.