Series of surveys document how Massachusetts centers are responding to the pandemic

Staff members mastered hosting Zoom meetings. They wore masks, stocked hand sanitizer, and limited walk-in offerings. They prepared and delivered many more weekly meals, and they made many more phone calls to check on clients. With these and other adaptations, senior centers across Massachusetts have managed to remain largely operational through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing for the physical and emotional needs of older adults in their communities.

Four surveys of Councils on Aging (COAs) throughout Massachusetts—in May, August, and November 2020 and August 2021—offer a comprehensive look at the challenges and activities of the state’s senior centers during the pandemic. UMass Boston researchers Ceara Somerville, Caitlin Coyle, and Jan Mutchler conducted the surveys as part of the Massachusetts Council on Aging Database, a project of the Center for Social & Demographic Research on Aging at UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute. The database began with a first round of surveys in 2016-2017 and offers a comprehensive look, at the macro and micro levels, of the structure, funding, staffing, programs, and services of the state’s senior centers.

With the onset of COVID-19 and its risk to older adults, the researchers added questions specific to the pandemic response in their 2020 surveys. The most recent survey in August 2021 focused solely on the impact and response to COVID-19 and garnered responses from 282 COAs, or 82 percent of all Massachusetts councils. The councils reported that, after more than a year in the pandemic, most had returned to in-person operations and were continuing to adapt to meet the social and mental health needs of their clients.

Highlights of the latest survey results include:

  • 38 percent of senior centers report they are providing equivalent programming compared to pre-pandemic times,
  • on average, 80 percent of senior center programming was being provided in person by August 2021,
  • senior center staff continue to adapt their physical space, technology, and health protocols to continue providing programs and services safely as the pandemic continues into 2022.

By far, the most difficult challenge COA staff report during the pandemic is addressing social isolation (82 percent), followed by addressing the mental health of seniors (42 percent), adjusting to working remotely (38 percent), lack of or difficulty with technology (38 percent), and outreach communicating with seniors (37 percent). To address the challenges, 85 percent of COAs reported increasing their number of outreach phone calls to seniors.

In 2020, only 6 percent of the COA respondents reported closing their centers entirely and offering no programming or services at the start of the pandemic. By late spring, that number had shrunk to 3 percent closures.

Programs and services that COAs reported offering during the pandemic include telephone outreach, remote assistance and classes, home delivered meals, medical transportation and transportation to groceries and pharmacies, food pantries, take-out and curbside meal pickup, remote social groups, some on-site programming, and mental health counseling. As one survey respondent wrote, “COVID has helped us better educate the community about the role of COAs. It’s helped foster stronger community partnerships and support for programming.”

“The survey reporting illustrates the creativity, ingenuity and adaptability of Councils on Aging statewide as they continue to meet the needs of older adults in their communities,” says Kathy Bowler, director of member services at Massachusetts Councils on Aging. “The pandemic is one of the greatest challenges that the network has collectively faced, and the survey documents the work of COAs as they continued to deliver services throughout the pandemic.”

The researchers thank the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs along with the staff of Massachusetts Councils on Aging and the individual Councils on Aging who gave their time to provide this information.

The comprehensive Councils on Aging database is available to the public. To learn more about the capacity, services, and programs offered by communities in Massachusetts, please write to the Center for Social & Demographic Research on Aging at UMass Boston or the Massachusetts Councils on Aging.