You’ve Got a Friend in Me: Friendship Center Finds a Way to Stay Connected
by BY STEVEN LIBOWITZ , Montecito Journal
Friendship Center serves an often overlooked, but much-needed niche for the aging adult community — providing a daytime home away from home where the dependent seniors can take advantage of companionship and engaging activities. They also receive necessary supervision while their family caregivers receive respite and a much-needed break from the demands of caregiving so they can recharge or find more balance in their lives.
Which is partly why, pre-pandemic, the Friendship Center’s dual adult day care locations — at All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito and on the grounds of Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Fairview Avenue in Goleta — were buzzing all day long, interacting with 800 seniors and their families with in-person programs designed to provide social interaction and stimulating activities to maintain brain health and stave off isolation that often follows declining health in advanced age.
There was music and games and nourishing meals and all sorts of “joy-sparking” things to do, a far more fun and cost-effective way to live out the golden years than at a long-term care facility away from family and familiar surroundings.
Then came the COVID pandemic.
On March 16, 2020, all of a sudden, things came to a grinding halt. How do you pivot when your whole purpose and reason for existence is to provide an on-site place for interaction and connection?
It wasn’t easy, but Friendship Center came up with some innovative ways to bridge the distance and do its best to keep its members connected and engaged, if only virtually over the last 14-plus months.
“Our team is just so creative and sensitive to the needs of our members, so when the pandemic hit, we just knew we had to think outside of the box to find ways to keep our seniors safe and social and involved and engaged and give them continued purpose,” explained Heidi Holly, Friendship Center’s executive director of more than 35 years, building on her UCSB and Antioch University education.
“Our staff really rallied to come up with innovative ideas of how to use Zoom, do other virtual activities, and come up with other ways to interact.”
Just 10 days after the mandatory shelter-in-place orders went into effect, for example, Friendship Center’s Take Care Tote program launched, providing monthly delivery of Friendship Center’s signature comfort-food for homebound, isolated seniors that represented a lot more than just a day’s worth of sustenance. Each round of deliveries is organized around a theme, with May’s “spring gardening” package featuring terra cotta pots, seed packets and mulch, plus straw Panama hats along with lip balm and sunscreen sets, all donated by local businesses or benefactors.
June’s Take Care Totes, centered around Father’s Day and Summer Solstice, will boast a variety of personal care products and fun items such as fidget spinners, mini-puzzles, and cards — not to give too much away to spoil the surprise.
“The totes represent joy and love (for the seniors) as they open the bags to see what activities, treats, and practical items are available to them this month,” said Kim Larsen, Friendship Center Family Services Manager. “They really do make members feel the connection and compassion that Friendship Center is famous for.”
Meanwhile Friendship Center’s pandemic offerings online have ranged from art pages and word games, live Zoom classes and pre-recorded videos, and memory screenings and weekly phone check-ins. These are all a part of the nonprofit’s Community Connect Adult Program, which also assists caregivers in tech and other support to make sure seniors can access the programs online.
“Community Connect has been very popular, especially Bingo. Everybody loves Bingo,” Holly said. “Also, the chat room where the seniors can have the opportunity to play trivia or sing.”
Partway through the pandemic, Friendship Center also figured out how to do safe, socially distanced events on site via periodic drive-in programs at the Montecito center’s parking lot. An Easter-themed one found attendees greeted by staff decked out in rabbit ears passing out Easter baskets and directing seniors and their caregivers on how to engage in games, including Bingo and a version of “Name That Tune,” as well as a raffle.
The next drive-in takes place on our publication date, June 3, when the hour-long Festival of Flowers will feature live music, singing, dancing, bingo and more, plus a live comedy show featuring standup comic and workshop leader Carol Metcalf, who also happens to be Friendship Center’s veterans group support coordinator. Members who attend will receive a special “goody bucket” filled with fun treats, face masks, head bands, flowers, and special surprises.
Such innovative outreach is among the reasons Friendship Center recently received the Caregiver Program of the Year from the Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens in May; accolades that help buoy the spirits of the staff.
And while nobody is sure how long the pandemic protocols will preclude regular indoor activities, Friendship Center plans to continue many of the programs well past reopening to ensure that even its most vulnerable clientele get what they need, Holly said.
“We’re going to roll out a hybrid plan that uses both onsite and Zoom activities so those seniors who still want to be at home and shelter in place can still get activities from our virtual programming,” she said. “With all of the regulations and the state licensing it’s been a bit of a juggling act. And we want to make sure everybody feels safe and secure in our program.”
As of press time, no exact date had been set for Friendship Center to bring members back inside its locations.
“But I’m sure our members and caregivers will be heartened to hear that our reopening plan has been in the works for months,” Holly said.
Donations in both dollars and goods and services, such as delivering and helping to put together packages, are more than welcome, while the need for volunteers and returning to full staffing will arise as soon as the doors open.
Whenever it is, and whatever it looks like initially, reopening the Montecito center can’t come too soon for Holly.
“I really miss my tribe – the seniors and the family members, the caregivers, everyone,” she said. “My office window looks out to the courtyard and whenever I look up, I can always see the seniors out there having a good time and enjoying themselves through socialization with their peers and the staff.
“That’s always been very inspirational to me to see that interaction with other people when they’re living out their life with great purpose and I know that we are spreading that joy and that goodness and helping to keep people in their homes as long as possible. I miss it. I really miss seeing that every day.”
The Friendship Center