Reopened dining room at Renton senior center supports social, emotional needs

As Washingtonians navigate life without COVID-19 restrictions, senior citizens are also getting back into the swing of things.

In-person dining is now open again at the Renton Senior Activity Center for the first time in more than two years.

"Being able to sit with your friends and talk and catch up on their lives and yours. That was the most important," said Julie Horan, member of the senior center for the last 10 years. "Lunches are wonderful. Charles is such a good cook."

The dining room is a popular social place at the center. It’s very important senior citizens have the option again, as it could help protect their mental health. Data from the National Council on Aging said social isolation increases their risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia. It could also affect their blood pressure and immune system.

Charles Turner, head chef and site coordinator, has been serving to-go meals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Though people can now have a seat at the table, some people still prefer to take their meal home for their safety. Turner said at least more seniors are coming back to the center for food.

"That’s one of the main things that I have a passion about, is making sure these people eat. Because I look at them as if they’re my mom, my aunt, my grandmother, my grandfather. So, when I put a meal down it’s heart-sent to them," said Turner.

It helps people like 89-year-old veteran Arnold Hernandez fulfill his doctor’s order of eating healthy.

"We sit four to a table and this guy will say, ‘I don’t like broccoli.’ I said ‘Give it to Arnie,’" laughed Hernandez.  "And this one over here will say, ‘I don’t like green beans.’ Give them to Arnie! Because I got to tell my doctor what I ate, that I had a nutritious meal."

With COVID-19 restrictions lifted in Washington, the center is gradually bringing back more classes and services. It’s a relief for members who have been isolated for so long and depend on the center to support their mental, social and emotional needs.

"Definitely a loss, definitely a loss," said Horan. "Classes to say hi to people, and just participate and doing things together. I missed that a lot."

So far this week, about 40 people per day have been going to the center for lunch. The center will expand its lunch hours in April, allowing people more time to stop by and grab a bite to eat. At least now, more seniors are starting to line up for a plate. When more of them are comfortable to have a seat, their table is ready.

"It’s coming back, but very slow," said Hernandez.

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