Closed since March, the Kingsport Senior Center reaches out to fight loneliness

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL)- Using phone calls and virtual outreach, the Kingsport Senior Center is trying to stay connected to its members. The COVID-19 pandemic and an Executive Order from Governor Lee have forced it to remain closed since mid-March. While members understand the reasons for the closure – a significant part of their lives has been taken away.

“Yeah, we miss it. A lot,” one member said Friday as he drove by the Center to pick up a to-go meal.

“It’s awful being home, being without the Center. I like to come down here and play cards and everything,” another member said through her window.

“I wish they would open it back up. They can’t keep it closed forever I hope,” said another member.

After six months of closure, Center staff and volunteers miss the members too and are concerned about their well-being.

“Isolation is a terrible thing. We’ve done a lot of things to keep our seniors from becoming isolated and we’ve tried to keep in touch with them,” said Shirley Buchanan, the Center’s director.

Kingsport Senior Center Director Shirley Buchanan speaks to a member on Friday

Volunteers make monthly welfare calls to members – all 4,500 of them – to make sure they have any food or medicine needed.

The Kingsport Senior Center is also producing online content that garners thousands of engagements. Classes in cooking, crafts, excercise and more have gone virtual on the Senior Center’s new YouTube page.

“They are doing an excellent job. Especially trying to do everything virtual,” said member Gary Coates.

Coates has loved going to Center for 21 years. He expressed concern about the lack of social interaction other members may be facing while isolated at home. From meals, to celebrations, to the popular Karaoke event he runs, Coates will tell you all about how fun the Kingsport Senior Center is.

“It was really big. At the [Center], was the line dancing. And they would come in and do the Electric Slide and all that,” said Coates. “But I don’t see how we’re going to be able to get that many people… it’s going to be hard to get everybody together again. For a long time I think.”

When the Senior Center gets the green light to reopen, there will be new safety protocols, including screening questions upon entrance, social distancing, and limited capacity.

“Let’s say if you’re a billiards player. You can come and you can play billiards for an hour that day. And then you have to let somebody else come in for an hour,” said Buchanan.

Even after the Center’s building reopens, all the new virtual outreach they’ve started won’t go away.

“We want them to be able to partake in all the offerings that the Senior Center has at their house and feel safe there,” said Buchanan.

The Executive Order closing Tennessee senior centers remains in effect until the end of September. If it’s not renewed, Buchanan said they’d like to reopen around October 5th.

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