The Value of Touch

A Welcome Return to In-person Care For Senior Day Care Centers.

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Martha, Rosa-Messina, and Bernie dance.

Brief, clamorous laughter carries over the thin wall separating Ann-Marie Selfridge’s office from the main activity room. The outbursts are accompanied by the sounds of a “Best of 70s, 80s, and 90s” YouTube playlist, which scores the afternoon. Selfridge, executive director of Adults Communicating Together (ACT), a senior adult day care center in Staten Island, is not bothered by the noise. For her, laughter and noise are welcome reminders that her seniors survived Covid.

 

Less than a month after the mayor’s office announced that senior centers could reopen at 25% capacity, Selfridge and her team returned to in-person care. Social isolation had a lethal toll on many seniors, said Selfridge. “A lot of them deteriorated because of the disruption in schedules and lack of movement,” she said. She estimates that of her members who died, loneliness may have taken more than Covid did. 

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Xavier, an aide, facilitates conversation during an afternoon at ACT.

Across New York City, adult day care centers have been eager to return to in-person service to restore one of the most crucial elements of senior care: socialization. When day centers shut down in March of 2020, seniors were forced to stay home, some with no immediate access to aides, food, or healthcare. Loss of loved ones and restrictions in daily activities wrought uncertainty and isolation among the older population, said Yvonne Ward, president of New York State Adult Day Services Association. “Their cognitive abilities decreased,” she said. “They've just aged so much in those few years, way beyond what you would expect.” While the New York Department for the Aging (DFTA) intends to restore average daily attendance to pre-pandemic levels of 26,342 seniors, the toll of a long, lonely year is still evident in senior centers around the city.

 

The value of community and physical touch is embedded in the simplest gestures of senior day care. At ACT, it is visible when an aide, Angelika, bears George’s weight as he stands up from a chair. It is in the flash of recognition on Ida’s face when she remembers the name of a song. It’s in Ann-Marie’s slow but intentional stretches during chair yoga.

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Aide Angelika's hand (left) and participant Katherine's hand (right).

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Ann-Marie massages Iris's head

These actions are more than rhythms of human connection, they are components of physical and mental well-being. Life at ACT follows an evidence-based schedule meant to promote holistic wellness, and is tailored to those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. “We have a pretty set schedule. Each session focuses on cognitive enhancement skills, geography, and history. They’ll do an art program each day, and an exercise program every day,” said Selfridge.

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Aide Angelika helps George out of his seat

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Gloria, Ida, Ann-Marie, and Joan do chair Zumba.

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Aide Xavier helps Beverly zip her coat before her departure.

Senior centers play a pivotal role in the physical and mental wellness of older New Yorkers. “What these centers are supposed to do is recognize that social interaction and medical outcomes are deeply interlinked and intertwined,” said Christian Gonzales-Rivera, director of strategic policy initiatives at the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging. The Brookdale center conducted a study on creative aging in 2020 which found, according to Rivera,  that most of the positive effects come from simply getting people together. “It comes down to, ‘Do you have enough to do? Do you have enough to keep your mind occupied?’” he said.

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Joan listens to a conversation facilitated by ACT aide Xavier

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Joan and Ann-Marie watch a segment of "Where's Xavi", an activity where Xavier video chats the center from different parts of the city to let participants enjoy the outside world.

New York native Gloria Auteri, 70, has been coming to ACT four days a week for a little over a year, and said she loves the center. “I don't know what I would do without being here. I really don't. I will be back home just laying down again. And I don't want that,” she said.

 

Auteri’s daughter, Nicole, said the center has been transformative for her family due to the influence it has had on her mother’s physical and mental health. “She can hold a conversation and she doesn't just sit there and be quiet,” she said. “Years ago, it would be Thanksgiving, and she would just be sitting there and not interacting with anybody,” she said. 

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Ann-Marie helps George into the car that takes him home

At ACT, small dramas unfold every day - a combination of personalities spark debate, disruption, and playfulness. Martha is affectionately called “the Mayor” for her buoyant laugh and ability to rally her peers into dance parties. “It’s like a godsend here,” she said. Joan is known to be a jokester and a contrarian in group conversation, frequently offering her personal take. Beverly, a new addition to ACT, roams the room cradling a baby doll, occasionally whispering in its ear or kissing it softly on the head.

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Joan laughs during an afternoon discussion at ACT

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Bernie's hands during chair yoga.

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Gloria does a chair Zumba routine

These centers are an essential pillar of human connection, said Ward.  “You add friendship. You add the feeling of belonging to a community,” she said. It’s the micro-interactions that matter the most, ”It’s just having fun laughing. It's everything that we are as humans.”

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Ineka, an ACT aide, helps Katherine into the car that will take her home.