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Sandel Center reopens to seniors

Members return after eight-month-long closure


When the Sandel Center was forced to close to members in March because of the coronavirus pandemic,  social isolation in the senior population was a big concern. The center did what it could to stay in contact with members, and finally reopened on Nov. 9, a move that was welcomed by staff and members alike.

“People are so glad to be back,” Chris O’Leary, the center’s director, said, “and it is so nice to see their faces again.”

Members were met at the door with balloons and applause the first day, O’Leary said, along with new procedures: temperature checks, sanitizer for their hands and waivers to sign. Inside the facility, masks are required, tables are spaced farther apart and sanitizing wipes are readily available. The center is open at 25 percent capacity, with just over 40 members allowed in at a time, and they must call ahead to secure a spot. There is a lunch hour, but no food is served. Members are encouraged to bring their own, and they can buy snacks and coffee.

To encourage social distancing, the staff created a fun way to remind people not to get too close: cardboard “members.”

“We have fake seniors stationed throughout the center,” O’Leary said. “It’s more inviting than having caution tape everywhere.”

Currently, there is one daily exercise program in the morning. “We’re offering one generic fitness class that’s comfortable for all levels,” Deputy Director Nancy Codispoti said. “It’s a seated exercise class that focuses on the regeneration of muscles.”

Members can do a more intense workout at home. “The Zoom classes focus more on cardio and offer more variety,” Codispoti said.

While the center was closed, O’Leary and her six full-time staff members continued to provide support for the 200-plus members. In April she created “Sandel at Home,” a weekly television program that airs on the village’s station — Channel 18 on Optimum and Channel 37 on Verizon Fios — at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and is posted on the village website under Senior Services. The same fitness instructors that members used to see in person now guide them through routines on the screen. And O’Leary conducts interviews with community leaders, which have taken the place of in-person lectures.

The program has two parts, fitness and lifestyle. In the fitness section, instructors guide seniors in full-body workouts, tai chi, yoga, dancing and other physical activities. In the lifestyle section, O’Leary interviews a community leader, and there may be an art demonstration, a musical performance or another presentation.

Maintaining a connection to the members was important, O’Leary said. “Studies show that isolation is extremely bad for the health of older people,” she said, “and our mission has always been to engage seniors.”

Now, reopened but with capacity limited, she added, she has no plans to end the TV program. “I’m very committed to keeping it going,” she said. “I had been wanting to reach our home-bound population even before the shutdown, and we’re reaching more people than ever.”

O’Leary acknowledged that some members aren’t ready to come back, and she tells them not to feel guilty, because everyone has to decide what’s best for them. Even making the decision to reopen was a process, she explained, involving many conversations among O’Leary, Mayor Francis Murray, Village Administrator Kathy Murray and village trustees.

“It was important for us all to be on the same page,” O’Leary said. “Everybody had input, and it was a very well thought out decision.”

Prior to reopening, she interviewed Dr. Lawrence Rand, a geriatrician based on Bellmore, on the TV show and discussed safety and some of the seniors’ other concerns. According to Rand, residents shouldn’t have to worry if everyone who comes in is screened and if surfaces and hands are sanitized regularly.

“Most of the viral transmission is through the air, and if people wear masks, it’s reasonably protective,” he said, noting that card games and mah-jongg should also be relatively safe activities.

So far, O’Leary said, people have been compliant. “The people who come are the least nervous,” she said. “They’re expressing so much happiness at being in the company of friends and are so grateful to be out of the house.”

Phyllis Miller, 80, has been a member since moving to Rockville Centre three years ago to be closer to her daughter. She lives alone in an apartment and depends on the center’s busing for transportation. “This place is a godsend,” she said. “I just love it here. It gives me a reason to get up in the morning.”

Since March, Miller said, she hasn’t been able to get out much, so when she found out that the center was opening, she was thrilled, and signed up immediately. “It’s my Disney World,” she said. “If I’m not with my children, I’m happiest here.”