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All Zoomed out, seniors get moving again

East Lyme — Susan Ferguson attended the first Stitch Happens meeting of the year in the newly reopened East Lyme Senior Center wearing a deep red sweater she had knitted herself.

"I did it this winter, during COVID," the East Lyme resident told Tory Chaffee of Westbrook on Wednesday morning. Then she leaned over the table in front of Chaffee to examine the scarf laid out across one of the room's six socially distanced workstations.

Chaffee made a dismissive gesture toward the length of plush teal she'd created from three self-described "fuzzy balls" of yarn that took her longer to roll than it took her to make the scarf.

"It's idiot knitting," she said. "It's something you don't have to think about."

Ferguson was undeterred. "What's this?" She pointed to a silver yarn in one of the fuzzy balls.

It turned out to be mohair, which yielded a gasp from the South Carolina transplant.

"Oh, my God, that's going to be hotter than hell," Ferguson said. 

The bustling haven for the 55+ crowd, like other senior centers all over the state, had been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic brought everyday life to a halt last March. But numbers at the close of last month showed 90% of seniors in the state had been vaccinated against COVID, an encouraging statistic that has prompted some towns to bring back programming for their older residents.

A full calendar of activities resumed at the East Lyme Senior Center this past week after the doors opened without fanfare over a month ago, according to center director Cathy Wilson.

The first activity to reappear at the center in late April was the popular FitDance Gold class, according to Wilson. This past week brought the return of tai chi, strength training, quilting, yoga, ping pong, pickleball, chair yoga and drawing.

Program coordinator Candy Heikkinen said there are no formal guidelines when it comes to when or how to resume in-person programming. Conversations with other members of the Connecticut Association of Senior Center Personnel revealed that centers across the state are "all over the board" in their approach toward reopening.

"There's suggested guidance from the state but there are really no guidelines," she said. "It's really up to each individual municipality to choose how they want to move forward."

In the absence of state dictates, Heikkinen said the center's leadership relied on its members to forge the center's direction. "We really went with what our people were looking for," she said.

Remote stitch sessions? No

Flavia Ejchel, Stitch Happens organizer, said the group was eager to return to the center for its in-person knitting sessions.

Efforts by Ejchel to offer a remote option during the closure did not catch on. She said she tried for about a month to engage the crafters over the videoconferencing platform Zoom, with fewer and fewer people participating each week.

"People are kind of Zoom-tired," she said. "We're ready for the reopening."

Wilson and Heikkinen said there were mixed results when it came to hosting activities over Zoom during the closure.

Wilson acknowledged some programs lent themselves better to Zoom than others, citing ukulele and guitar lessons.

"But fitness classes? Meh," she said.

Tai chi instructor William Juhnevicz and students Jean Rago and Marcia Graham came off the new "studio" floor in the reimagined dining room of the senior center on the first day of in-person classes Wednesday expressing relief to be back.

Fifteen tape marks on the floor, which Heikkinen had carefully placed 10 feet apart, told the participants where they could safely stand with their masks off so they could move unimpeded through a series of slow, gentle movements that typify the ancient Chinese tradition of tai chi.

Being able to watch both the instructor and the more experienced students made it easier to follow the meditative exercises than when they were participating via Zoom, Rago and Graham said. Space constraints at home and the mirroring effect of the video program also made it difficult to move — and to figure out where they were going.

The instructor agreed there's no substitute for the real thing.

"You pick up signals — subliminally, whatever. You look out of the corner of your eye and you see someone doing something and you say 'oh, no, he's off balance.' With Zoom, you can't do that," Juhnevicz said.

Still, the remote option was better than nothing. Rago said taking tai chi remotely when it became available in January was helpful during the lonely winter months.

"I was afraid all the time. I don't know about anyone else, but that's quite honestly how I felt. It was not good. And not seeing my family was horrible," she said.

Center is 'abuzz'

Ferguson, over in the Stitch Happens session, said she had a lot of hobbies and volunteer commitments — "Thank God for gardening" — to fall back on while she was homebound by all the closures.

The single woman described herself as comfortable being by herself, but said the inability to participate in her grandchildren's lives was the hardest part of getting through the past year.

"Your family members, everybody stays away because they don't want to give you COVID," she said.

Activities at the senior center are now registration-only, with limited spaces. Participants must sign an attendance sheet to help with contact tracing if it becomes necessary due to a COVID-19 case.

Prior to the pandemic, there were 60 to 80 people per day filing through the senior center, according to Wilson. Now, despite lower numbers due to social distancing constraints and the fact that masks muffle the voices of those who attend, Wilson described the building as "abuzz" with excitement.

Marcia Graham, in talking about her experience on the tai chi floor, related a feeling that could also describe East Lyme seniors as they emerge from isolation.

"When you only have one person, you've only got your own energy," she said. "But when you're with a group, you've got this combined energy that works. And everything flows."

e.regan@theday.com

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