You can hear the emotion swell in Gerri Backes’ voice when she talks about the members of the Kalispell Senior Center. It’s clear she thinks of them as family. And as senior center president of nearly a year, she’s taken it upon herself to look after them as such.
But she, much like the rest of us, hadn’t planned on a global pandemic throwing a wrench into future plans, gatherings and social opportunities. However, Backes isn’t the type to roll over when faced with adverse circumstances.
And although the center has shut its doors under the direction of Gov. Steve Bullock, Backes is on a mission to find ways to keep local seniors connected and entertained until better days arrive.
She reaches out to at least five of the center’s 320 members every day by phone, sends out emails regularly and arranges time for individuals to pick up books and puzzles from the activity center. Her efforts, both pre- and post-COVID-19 have garnered the attention of Congressman Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., who recognized Backes with the Spirit on Montana commendation on May 1 — a recognition he bestows on one Montanan each week for their accomplishments, dedication or service.
“Congressman Gianforte called and I thought it was for a campaign donation,” she said with a laugh. Instead, they had a 20-minute conversation about her role with the senior center.
“It was very surprising and very humbling,” Backes recalled.
When Backes took on the role of president, her central aim was to increase social opportunities for local seniors. She started a special birthday party for members age 90 and older that was a “smashing success,” and oversees the center’s Warm it Up program, which distributes hats, scarves and quilts made by seniors to local schools and nonprofit organizations. The center also offers exercise classes, bingo and pinochle groups, under her leadership. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, these and a host of other activities had to be, heartbreakingly, called off. She put the kibosh on an upcoming cornhole tournament and volunteer appreciation parties, among other events.
“We had all kinds of social events — something to look forward to — and that was taken away,” Backes said.
SHE SHIFTED her focus on protecting the mental health and well-being of the members — many of whom have been isolated since the outbreak began, as seniors are at greater risk of developing severe symptoms from COVID-19. And while the state has begun a slow return to normalcy with businesses reopening and the lifting of the stay-at-home order, members of vulnerable populations are still encouraged to shelter in place, according to Bullock’s Phase One Reopening Plan.
Continued isolation in the senior population has been linked to cognitive decline, heart disease, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, according to the National Institute on Aging.
“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases,” Dr. Steve Cole, director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, said in an NIA article. “The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”
In addition to keeping in touch with the center members, Backes has delivered masks to their doorsteps, free of charge. And when she does make a phone call, she makes sure she’s brightened their day before putting the phone down.
“When I do the telephone calls with people, I don’t want to hang up until I hear them laugh,” she said.
Backes has also found creative ways to get seniors together safely. For those who do feel comfortable venturing outside, she’s organized outdoor exercise classes four days a week in the parking lot of the Kalispell Elks Club. Chairs are spaced out generously and participants are asked to bring their own equipment to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. Drivers passing by will honk their horns at the class of seniors and wave to them, she said.
“It’s just getting outside, getting the sun and seeing people,” Backes said. “The other day I went by and they were doing their windmill thing sitting on their chairs — they were laughing so hard they couldn’t even exercise.”
She’s also working on plans for drive-by birthday parties to give the seniors something fun to look forward to.
“We’re at the end of our chapter in life and each day is special to us. We don’t want to spend the last of our days in the stay-at-home mode and be alone,” Backes said. “We’re going to learn a lot about ourselves through this and what we value.”