Seymour Center construction

At top, the main entrance to the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill. Above, work is being done to expand the great hall of the center as part of a $3.26 million project at the center.

Even as $3.26 million in expansions and improvements move forward at the Seymour Center location of the Orange County Department on Aging, the plan to reopen the facility to its users remains up in the air.

Ironically, the construction project was planned to address the amount of use and lack of parking at the Seymour Center, which now sits mostly unused.  

“Back before COVID-19, there were 450 people who came through the doors,” said Janice Tyler, director of the Orange County Department on Aging. “If you came by in the morning you likely would not have been able to find a parking space. You would walk into a building full of activity, every single room filled. A typical day for us would be anywhere between 30 and 40 activities. And we’re open in the evenings. We’re basically open at 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. It’s really a place for people to come to meet their friends, to be socially engaged to do educational programs, to stay physically fit.”

But since COVID-19 hit and the state set in restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill — and the Passmore Center, which is a sister location in Hillsborough — have been relatively silent.

“We grapple everyday with trying to figure out what’s next,” Tyler said. “We’re trying to do our Fall programming. The fire Marshall has given us our numbers as far as keeping within the Phase 2 guidelines, and it’s going to be hard for us to choose what can come back in and what can’t. Even with the 50 percent capacity, for our lunch program, that would be the only people we could have in the building. We know people want fitness classes, even though we are doing those virtually, too. We know so many people want to see their friends. They miss seeing their friends. They miss doing things they’re not going to be able to do if we open back up. We have some avid card players. We have avid dominoes players. Mahjong players. Bridge players. We can’t start back those things. You can’t social distance and play Bridge. And everybody would be touching the cards. We’re struggling with this.”

Despite not being able to allow people in to use the facilities, the centers have worked hard to continue providing as many services as possible. 

“One of the things we’ve kept going during this crisis is lunch,” Tyler said. “We immediately transitioned — didn’t miss a beat — to curbside lunch. Now, between the two locations, we’re doing 800 meals a week.”

Another is the  Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA. The center went to a virtual and curbside service. Tyler said the centers do between 1,300 and 1,500 tax returns each year, making it the second-largest VITA program in the state. With the virtual method, members can bring their tax documents where they are picked up, scanned and uploaded to a secure website. Then volunteers, who are all older adults, do the taxes from their homes.

The Seymour Center opened in 2007 and the Passmore Center opened in 2009. The population of older adults is exploding in Orange County. 

“When we moved into the locations they were already too small to handle the number of older adults in the area,” Tyler said. “There are more older adults in Orange County than we have kids in the school system.”

The expansion at the Seymour Center will add 55 parking spaces. Another project of the new construction is to straighten the road coming into the center to make it safer. Also, the large activity room, or great hall, in the center is being expanded.

Tyler, who has been with the Department On Aging for 33 years, said the centers serve a population with wide range of capabilities and interests.

“We say that we serve folks age 55 to 105,” she said. “That is multigenerational. We ask that you be independent to come to the center, or bring your care partner with you. We do have people who come that bring their caregiver, sometimes we have couples that one may be experiencing some cognitive issues and their partner will be with them.”

The age of the members creates a much more precarious situation for reopening. “Everybody we serve is at-risk,” Tyler said. “If you’re 60-years-old and over, you’re at-risk.”

There are 21 paid employees between the two centers, which rely heavily on volunteers.

“We could not do what we do every day without the nearly 450 volunteers that work with us,” Tyler said. “At the front desk, helping answer the phones, running programs, serving lunches and teaching classes. We have volunteers who help members with insurance and Medicare options. We do telephone reassurance, which is where we call people to check on them. This has been particularly critical in during the COVID crisis.”

There is also a team of handy helpers who will go out in to the community to do small home repairs and make changes to a members home — like building a ramp or install bathtub handrails — as part of programs offered to help people “age in community.”

The Orange County Department On Aging also conducts outreach programs to help the community meet the needs of the older adult population.    

“We received a grant from Administration for Community Living to develop Orange County as a Dementia-Capable Community,” Tyler said. “That was a three-year grant for us. It was about $1 million. One of the programs that was funded by the grant was our Dementia-Friendly Business, which is where we go out to local businesses and train their front-facing staff how to engage with someone that has cognitive problems or issues. If you look in Senior Times, you can see all the businesses that have gone through the training that have met or trained more than 1,000 people and being dementia-friendly. 

“We’re one of the first communities in the U.S. to do this. We were doing that before we got the grant. We think that was one of the things that helped us get the grant,” she said. 

The Orange County Department On Aging is funded through state and county programs, including the Older Americans Act.

While the Seymour Center has upgrades underway, the Passmore Center has its own set of available amenities. The facility is connected to the Orange County SportsPlex, which members are able to use and even receive scholarships for memberships to the SportsPlex. 

“One of the things we did to help engage older adults 55-years and older was to require a physical function screening through the Department On Aging in order to receive the senior discount at the SportsPlex. That way we’re able to tell people about the departments and services of the Department On Aging. At the very least, you’ve learned what we offer,” Tyler said.

Another potential bonus to the Passmore site is the likely addition of Pickle Ball courts in a field house that is being added to the SportsPlex campus.

“Pickle Ball is the fastest-growing sport in America. Among all ages,” Tyler said.

The lengthy list of offerings provided by the two centers makes it even more difficult to plan how they will reopen. Tyler says the people who take advantage of the offerings are anxious about the plans for reopening for different reasons.

“We have people who, even if we are able to open, have said they’re still going to hold off on returning,” she said. “We’re hearing this from members, and we’re also hearing that from instructors. We’ve reached out to them and surveyed them to see if they’re willing to come back and teach. We have a lot of them who have said they’re not coming back until there’s a vaccine. Because many of our instructors are older, as well.

“But then we have the other extreme where some are coming by my office almost every week. They so miss playing games with their friends,” Tyler said.