On high alert for coronavirus, services to Alaska elders roll on

Hand sanitizer is prominent for an art reception at the Anchorage Senior Activities Center. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

One subset of Alaskans is particularly at risk from the coronavirus – the elderly – and that has Alaska facilities that serve senior citizens on high alert.

Still, the Anchorage Senior Activity Center was busy with the usual traffic last week: People coming in and out for lunch at the restaurant, to take art classes and to use the gym.

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Fitness Manager Brittney Mitchell says she hasn’t noticed any decline in participation.

“Our members in the fitness department are very inclined to continue to come in,” she said. “We’re just making sure that everyone’s washing their hands before and after classes, wiping down equipment … . We’ve had these rules implemented for quite some time but we’re being extra careful.”

That, more or less, was also the response from the state Pioneer Homes and Providence, which operates several residential facilities that serve seniors. They say they have protocols to prevent infection, and they’re making sure everyone follows them. 

The Anchorage Senior Center is a community hub, with all sorts of classes and social events. It’s a meeting place for several clubs, formal and not. It’s open to the public.

The center’s director, Rebecca Parker, said about 200 people visit daily. Every year they take measures to protect their clientele the flu, she said. The center is relying on those practices now, with some extra emphasis.

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“We already had signs in the restrooms, but now they’re bigger and laminated. So we’re trying to get people to really pay attention,” Parker said. “And you can see we’ve got (more hand) sanitizers.”

They’ve decided to use disposable dishes and cutlery in the restaurant, for now. Parker hasn’t ruled out wearing a mask at work. But, she said, some habits die hard.

“I notice still there are lots of seniors who come here and they just want to be hugged. And they will open their arms,” she said. “I haven’t declined a hug yet, and I hope I don’t have to.”

A few dozen people gathered at the senior center Friday for the judging of an art show. Sandwiches and cookies were served. 

“Just to remind everybody: Before you have something to eat, please wash your hands for 20 seconds,” announced Gordon Glaser, president of the senior center’s board. He pointed out where the bathrooms are, and noted the bottles of hand sanitizing gel on the food table,

Related: Follow our continuing coverage of the impacts of coronavirus in Alaska.

Glaser said the day is coming when they may have to do more than focus on hand-washing.

“We also have to make some hard decisions. Like this is a crowd,” he said, looking around the art show in the center’s lobby. “Do we have these type of activities? And what kind of activities do we do and don’t do?”

But Glaser said there is a cost to being overly cautious.

“A lot of people depend on programs like this,” he said. ” Some people – this is where they get their main meal. Or this is where they meet their friends.”

Mary Belton is a participant at the senior center. She thinks all the attention on the coronavirus might be a bit overhyped.

“Well, I think it’s a political thing,” she said. “They’re trying to get rid of Trump. And whatever bad thing comes down the road, ‘It’s Trump’s fault.’ You know.”

Belton said she’s washing her hands more, and she’s concerned about a woman she knows in Washington state who is in her 90s. Belton said other parts of Anchorage might be more risky, but she feels safe at the senior center. 

“I’m going to keep coming,” she said.

Leaders of the senior center, like those of the Pioneer Homes and Providence, say they’re following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and other government authorities, and they are ready to adapt if the advice changes with the spread of the coronavirus.

The Pioneer Homes sent a letter to elders and families last week saying it’s likely they will begin asking all visitors to sign in, and answer a few questions before they enter.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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