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Fife Lake Public Library Director Julie Kintner and Senior Center Manager Lori Wells doing curbside delivery.

TRAVERSE CITY — The social life of Rose Sickle, 82, is on hiatus thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not long ago, her social life was thriving thanks in part to the Grand Traverse County Senior Center Network.

“It’s been really a focal point in my life,” she said.

The senior center network which could be described as a Boys and Girls club for older adults, provides a full lineup of activities including exercise and art classes, along with social and support groups. The network includes the Traverse City Senior Center, and satellite programming offered in Kingsley, Fife Lake, Interlochen and Acme.

For more than 20 years, Sickle has both volunteered at the center and participated in activities like card games several times a week and group travel.

“Doing activities there helps to keep us alive and keep us going,” Sickle said.

Sickle is now homebound thanks to COVID-19, the novel virus that has wreaked havoc across the globe.

That means the in-person contact that she and so many others thrived on is no longer an option.

That worries Grand Traverse County Senior Center Network Manager Lori Wells.

“My greatest concern is their mental health,” she said.

The senior center network exists mainly to reduce social isolation. For older adults, being isolated is as damaging as heart disease, according to Wells.

The center served 6,500 different seniors in 2019, and 150 people come through Traverse City Senior Center doors each day, said Wells.

“Now that they can’t come in to the senior center, it’s been a great concern for me, how to stay connected with people, how to make sure that they are connected in some way, shape or fashion,” she said.

To stay connected, the center is robocalling and emailing seniors. It’s also offering some of its most popular classes through online video and on the Traverse Area Community Media platforms.

Before the pandemic, the senior center network also offered a daily in-person lunch at the Traverse City Senior Center and less frequent lunches at its satellite locations. Now, staff are providing curbside pickup where each recipient gets five meals. Sickle was one of them. For her, avoiding contact with staff is hard.

“They miss us, too. Gosh, when we go get food and see them it’s like, ‘I want to be with you. I want to give you a hug,’” she said.

All of the senior center network’s meal offerings are provided through Northwest Michigan’s Community Action Agency’s Meals on Wheels program. Like the name implies, that program also delivers meals to people 60 and older who can’t leave their homes.

Right now, though a person may be physically able, the risk of getting infected has made the need for prepared meals much larger.

In fact, according to Lisa Robitshek, the manager of the Meals on Wheels program at the NMCAA, the organization expects to provide an additional 8,200 meals though both curbside delivery and drop off due to COVID-19.

“We are seeing new clients that might not otherwise qualify,” said Robitshek. To cut back on in-person contact, Meals on Wheels is delivering a week’s worth of frozen meals once a week.

During the delivery Robitshek said staff do a safety check by knocking on the door of the recipient and then stepping back 6 feet.

Staff won’t leave the meal until they know the client is OK. Both before COVID-19 and now during the pandemic, the social connection provided by the service is as important as the food, Robitshek said.

“Sometimes we may be the only people that they see for days at a time,” she said.

Sickle is managing the alone time by keeping in touch with friends via email, phone, and writing letters. She’s now also communicating with family by reluctantly participating in FaceTime videos.

She’ll do what it takes to get to the other side of the virus, she said.

“I’m not saying I’m happy to be here, but I can do it,” she said. “I can stay in here isolated as long as it takes.”

Robitshek adds that people can request a meal or safety check through this state website. https://newmibridges.michigan.gov/s/request-meal-delivery. reassurance?language=en_US

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