Island elders survive COVID with the help of their communities

Island elders survive COVID with the help of their communities

Much like the community they live in, the elders of the San Juan Islands are strong people. Being at a higher-risk for COVID-19 has affected the islands’ senior community in some unique ways.

“Like most islanders, San Juan Island seniors are a resilient bunch, but it can be difficult for seniors that live alone to get enough social contact,” Mullis Senior Center Manager Anna Coffelt-Kuetzing said.

There has been a concern among staff and volunteers that some seniors who were receiving help from neighbors and friends may have experienced a reduction in assistance due to fear of the virus, Coffelt-Kuetzing added. She also said there is a worry that those who are taking care of a family member are feeling even more isolated than they were before the pandemic.

“Extended periods of social isolation can be demanding for anyone at any age,” Orcas Island Senior Center’s Operations Manager Lena Kassa Kassa said. “[The Orcas Senior Center’s] new Buddy Check-in program has been successful in providing a bit of extra support and community contact for any senior who would like it.”

San Juan County Senior Services Specialist Jami Mitchell added that many seniors have shown a willingness to be patient and not rush to return to normal until it is safe to do so.

“People have told me they miss their friends and social activities, but are still worried about the implications of getting sick,” Mitchell said, adding that some have enjoyed the opportunity to slow down and focus on projects at home.

“I have witnessed a profound emotional resilience in many of the elders that I work with on Orcas,” San Juan County Aging and Family Case Coordinator Heidi Bruce said. “Many have turned — or returned — to gardening; caring for pets; reading; [and] reaching out to neighbors to help work through feelings of fear and isolation.”

Lopez Senior Services Specialist Roni Wilke explained that the seniors she has worked have said they are lonely, frustrated and tired of being isolated, however, they are thankful for their daily friends and community members who have been assisting them through the pandemic.

For safe social interaction and to keep up with physical fitness, each center has offered online programs.

The OSC book club held its first Zoom meeting recently, Kassa explained, and other activities are being explored.

San Juan’s book club has been meeting monthly via Zoom; a remote quilting group has been making thousands of masks to hand out across the island; and instructor Katerina Wen is providing a chair yoga class on Tuesday afternoons via Zoom. For more information about the Mullis Center’s online programs, call 360-370-7520, or email

How to help

Individuals on all the islands have stepped up to contribute and volunteer.

“We want to extend a very special thanks to our generous donors and volunteers,” Coffelt-Kuetzing said. “Including, but not limited to the Meals on Wheels drivers; office receptionists; groundskeeper; Jennifer Rigg’s grassroots T-shirt fundraiser; and those who have donated masks for our seniors.”

Lopez Island Senior Center Treasurer Carol Jones said she wanted to thank volunteers — particularly the volunteer kitchen staff as well as Locavores, a nonprofit that through its “Grow a Row” program has provided fresh produce for Meals on Wheels lunches.

In a collaboration between Hearts and Hands — a volunteer group on Orcas that works with island seniors — the Orcas Community Resource Center and San Juan County Senior Services have helped ensure that socio-emotional and basic needs are met for a broader number of elders, Bruce said.

Coffelt-Kuetzing noted the two biggest needs currently are caregivers and funding.

“Private caregivers are always in demand and this is true now more than ever,” she said.

Funding has also become an issue for the Mullis Center because income from renting the building and hosting activities has become non-existent due to COVID.

“Major sources of funding for the three senior centers in San Juan County ceased with the closures of the senior centers,” Jones said, adding that the centers will not open until Phase Four, or later. “Any donations to the senior centers to help cover the costs of operations would be greatly appreciated.”

Revenue is currently underwhelming, Kassa said.

“Some costs have even increased, like salaries and transportation,” Kassa said. “Both employees at the Orcas Senior Center have increased their hours to full time and our transportation costs have increased due to more home-delivered meals.”

The Meals on Wheels program has more than doubled on each of the islands, according to Coffelt-Kuetzing.

“We anticipate the need to continue to increase,” Coffelt-Kuetzing said.

Kassa echoed that sentiment, and Jones noted that the Lopez Senior Center is now delivering four times as many Meals on Wheels lunches.

For anyone interested in volunteering on Orcas, contact Mitchell at 360-376-7926, or email Bruce added that having people to connect with at a safe distance — assisting with not just home-delivered meals but other errands like banking or pharmacy, taking out trash and recycling — would also be incredibly helpful.

To become a personal caregiver on San Juan Island or Lopez, contact Aging and Family Case Coordinator Gail Leshine-Seitz at 360-370-7528, or email

To volunteer at the Mullis Center, contact Senior Services Specialist Debbie Haagensen at, or call 360-370-7526

The Joyce L. Sobel Family Resource Center program “Island Neighbors” connects volunteers with seniors to assist with shopping and other errands, Coffelt-Kuetzing said. For more information about the resource center, visit

“It is rewarding to be a part of San Juan County’s emergency response team and see how all of the moving parts can work together so effectively to support our county during an emergency,” Mitchell said, adding that nonprofits that have risen to the challenge have made huge contributions to the health and wellness of the community, including the Orcas Senior Center. “[The OSC] has been particularly responsive to the needs of our seniors. Working together we have really made a difference in how seniors have experienced this pandemic on Orcas. I think that folks really have a sense of being in this together.”