To glance at the Senior Citizens of Westbury Center’s calendar from March 2020, the last month it was fully open, is to peer at those pre-pandemic days we now call “normal.” It also gives insight into what the virus has done to seniors. For it was filled with activities that kept them engaged and entertained, in addition to providing a daily meal. COVID-19 has been doubly cruel to senior citizens: infecting and killing them at higher rates, and inflicting the burden of isolation and loneliness.
Paul Ragusa-Schweitzer knows this intimately, having seen the faces and heard the voices of desperation, especially when it came to securing vaccination appointments. He succeeded Maureen Droge as director of the non-profit last September, bringing an impressive resume of social service and organizational management experience and civic engagement.
“I have a very varied background and I have a more diverse experience than the other candidates,” he speculated on why he had gotten the post. “I’ve done a lot of work with non-profits. I’ve served on a lot of non-profit boards. And I think I have a lot of fresh ideas that they found appealing during the interview process.”
He was hired just in time to participate in the ribbon cutting for the refurbished Westbury Community center, owned by the village, a major funder of the organization. Much of the decades-old interior has been redone, thanks to moneys the village had been granted via the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative. The building is also informally known as the Senior Center.
“My job has been to get a handle on the finances and the operations of the center without really seeing how it actually runs in a non-pandemic environment,” according to Ragusa-Schweitzer.
One of the few upsides of the center being closed for in-person activities, he stated, “is that it’s allowed me to make some needed updates and changes in preparation for reopening. Not only in terms of health and safety issues, but also things that needed to be done from a technological perspective. Kind of bringing things more into the 21st century in terms of processes and procedures.”
He added, “When I came in we got some new computers. I put everybody on the cloud. We put in [Microsoft] Office 365 so everybody could work remotely. It’s necessary to work remotely now at least part of the time.”
Staff members and volunteers were also coordinating with the county and local non-profits, making deliveries of food and other necessities. They ensured that seniors weren’t feeling isolated and got help they needed.
“We have regular members and then we have a group we call special friends and they are our medically fragile, more homebound members who under normal circumstances came once a week for a day of adaptive programming,” Ragusa-Schweitzer said. “They come in with an aide and we have special programs for them on Wednesdays and we provide them with transportation as well.
During the pandemic they were more isolated than our other members and the staff were reaching out to them. We delivered food and PPE and running errands for them.”
The pleasant late summer and fall weather also provided opportunities for limited outdoor activities such as workshops and presentations. The staff added games such as bingo at these events.
The Center also partnered with Long Island Cares and Island Harvest to give away some non-perishable foods and produce.
“In October, we also started a grab-and-go lunch program,” Ragusa-Schweitzer said. “Normally we provide lunch five days a week in here, subsidized by the county. Grab-and go [lunches] made sure they had the opportunity to have one good nutritious meal every day and to get out while the weather was still nice. And see each other and see the staff. We would bring the lunches out to them.”
All these activities, however limited, gave seniors a chance to mingle.
“The biggest disappointment for our members is not to be able to see one another.” he said. “They come here for class and activities, but they love to socialize.”
The director said there is a group of about 60 seniors who are participating in the Zoom virtual classes and workshops. The Center offers many of the same pre-pandemic activities: strengthening exercises, yoga, meditation, a reflective writing class and book club.
To help the transition to virtual programming, Ragusa-Schweitzer made a proposal to Capital One Bank, asking for $1,000 to introduce digital literacy training with the seniors. Members were brought in, under safe conditions and in small groups, socially distanced and masked. They used the big community room and were trained in how to use Zoom and prepare them for remote classes.
“Actually, Capital One was extra generous and gave us $2,000 to do it. We also trained some of our instructors how to teach by Zoom,” he related.
“What kind of programs will you like to introduce?” he was asked.
“We’d keep the same programs we are doing now, but I would like to implement things that are hands-on and lend themselves to being together with the instructor,” he replied. “We are adding a virtual watercolor class this spring—we found a wonderful watercolor instructor. We’ll do more of those kinds of things when we come back in-person. We normally have ceramics and sculpture and painting and jewelry-making. Things that are very hands-on.”
He continued, “We’re always looking for new ideas and new instructors who can bring something fresh to the center that fits with our mission. Our mission is to educate. To provide opportunities for socialization. To keep everybody physically, spiritually and mentally growing and fit. We’re always looking for people who have something to offer.”
Ragusa-Schweitzer is aided by Assistant Director Andrea Padinha, Homebound Service Coordinator Patricia Lent and volunteers.
Asked about the Senior Center’s efforts in securing COVID-19 vaccination appointments, he replied, “In terms of helping our seniors, since January we’ve been keeping a list—as we were asked to do by the county—a list of seniors from Westbury who contacted us looking for the vaccine. We were taking their contact information and their birth date. Over the course of a couple of months we built a list of about 70 people. Some have come off because they’ve gotten appointments for vaccines since. We submit it every week to the county’s Department of Health and I also send a copy every week to the mayor.”
In mid-March, Ragusa-Schweitzer related, he began hearing of seniors getting calls from the county with leads and information about pop-up servers. He earned a COVID-19 contact tracing certification from Johns Hopkins University.
“We were wondering what the county was doing with the information and we would warn our seniors, ‘This is not an appointment. You should continue to look for appointments on your own.’ We would give them every resource that we had. Every hotline, every tip that we had,” he said. “Maintaining that list and fielding those vaccine phone calls has been a big piece of what we’ve been doing for the past two months.”
“And have you heard frustration or desperation?” he was asked.
“Tons. We would get calls from children or siblings of seniors who live outside the area who had a senior living in the Westbury area and say, ‘I’m calling from Boston or South Carolina or Florida and I’m trying to get my [relative] a shot.’ We got all those kind of calls,” he replied.
When the county announced that the “Yes We Can” Community Center in the New Cassel section of Westbury would be a vaccination site, somehow it got confused with the Senior Center, and for a week “we were inundated with calls and people coming here,” he said, adding, “A big part of our job has become trying to help people get appointment. Andrea has helped a lot of people get actual appointments. Every time she’d get a tip she’d get on the phone with a senior she knew was having particular challenges. There are seniors who don’t have a child or aren’t tech savvy. It’s frustrating and frightening for them.”
He concluded, “In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen some movement. We look forward to when all of our seniors are vaccinated. And that’s a big step for us towards doing some sort of a reopening. And of course we’ll take some cues from the county as to when we can do that.”
“There are a lot of mysteries and unknowns about how we’re going to reopen,” he admitted. “I think it will be a gradual thing with limited participation, and scheduling things will be a challenge. And we’ll continue to offer virtual things—that will help us serve more members during the day. And of course, we’ll bring the [in-center] lunch program back, though at first it will have to be limited.”
He said that in normal times 60 to 70 people typically ate lunch every day because they were already at the center.
“One of the biggest draws, aside from the lunch and the programs, was the opportunity to hang out and play bridge and mah-jongg or just socialize with each other,” he said. “They are chomping at the bit—I hear from the members every day. ‘I miss coming. I can’t wait till we come back’ they tell me.”
Asked for his thoughts on the Center and his task, Ragusa-Schweitzer stated:
Moving forward, I think my job is to make sure we stay fluid and moving forward we offer more of a blend of services so that we’re not totally place-dependent. We need to keep up with the flexibility. We need to keep up with some of the virtual activities. God forbid we should have to face something like this again. Or it’s starts to get worse again.
The lesson is you can’t be stagnant. Adapt and change with the times. Keep up with the technology and stay creative . And the pandemic certainly drove that lesson home.
My biggest concern is that people think nothing is going on here. But the staff has been here. We have grants that help fund the center all those things require maintenance and work and bookkeeping.
We’re still here. We’re still alive. It’s just operating in a different form.
Like many, Ragusa-Schweitzer is hopeful for better days, but also can’t put 2020 easily behind. Amidst the national tragedy of COVID-19, he lost husband Neil Schweitzer at 51 in October to non-virus causes.
“It’s been horrible,” he admitted. “Thank God for this job. I love the center. I love my staff and the members.”
The Senior Citizens of Westbury, Inc. (SCWC), is housed in the Village of Westbury Community Center, which is located at 360 Post Avenue (516-334-5886). The SCWC invites residents 60 years of age and older to become part of the Center to enjoy a wide range of life enhancing activities. A membership fee of $35 per person, $60 per couple, is requested. Scholarships are available.
The Westbury Senior Center is a not-for-profit, tax exempt organization that has been serving older residents of Greater Westbury since 1956. The major sponsor of the SCWC is the Incorporated Village of Westbury, followed by support from the Town of North Hempstead, the Incorporated Village of Old Westbury, Nassau County, the State of New York and the Westbury School District. Find more information here.