ELLSWORTH — Not all older Mainers were isolated and alone during the COVID-19 pandemic but many were. For seniors used to bumping elbows and coffee cups at the Visit with Friends coffee house at the Moore Center, the social hour went virtual — but it was not the same.
“I missed it so much. The social interaction, seeing people,” said Hollis Geel, who walked over from the Leonard Lake Senior Housing with Cathy Farley on a recent morning.
The Friends in Action-hosted coffee house reopened on July 1, and is set for every Thursday morning, Executive Director Jo Cooper said, with hopes to expand closer to the pre-pandemic four times a week come September.
“I’ve been listening to all these things about how to mentally be more positive and upbeat after COVID [and to] look for joy.” she said. “I tell you, all you have to do is come to that coffee house.”
First, there is the coffee, brewed by Sonny King, aka the Coffee King. “He assures me there’s enough caffeine not to disturb the pacemaker,” Russ Grohe laughed. “He’s one of our favorite volunteers.”
It isn’t so easy to separate the volunteers from the guests. King wears decades of experience in the creases and lines of his face and has brewed the coffee for five years. He said he welcomed its return after a rough pandemic year between cancer treatments and his dog dying. “I had my share of a little bad luck and survived it all,” he observed.
King likes to add a pinch of salt to the coffee pot, noting, “Some people get a little upset, but it’s supposed to enhance the flavor. No matter what business you’re in, you can’t satisfy everyone.”
Fruit, cupcakes and fresh produce were also on hand from volunteer master gardeners. They grow lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and more in four raised beds just outside the Moore Center, where Friends in Action is headquartered. Fresh greens and radishes filled a table on the first produce drop by the gardeners since the pandemic. The response, in the past and now, has been “very good,” said coordinator Mary Jude of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“These are the best radishes,” Sandy Lounder confirmed.
Nearby, Dave Swain and Karen Harner returned this month to drink coffee and play cribbage. “I live up at Seaport Village and I like coming down to talk to people,” Harner said. “I’m thrilled. I love playing cribbage. The rules are crazy, but we all play.””
New faces showed up, too, like Beth Hansen, whose friend, Sylvia Frost, talked her into driving them in from Franklin. Frost has been coming for years, to get out of the house and for “the enjoyment and sociability of it,” she said. “When you live alone, it’s good to see people. I’m seeing people I haven’t seen for a long time.”
Cooper said that depending on the “trajectory of COVID-19,” lunches will resume at the center. Already, the weekly writing group has resumed, with mah-jongg, bridge, painting and pastel drawing following one week behind. Fitness classes are back, and the senior playground at Knowlton Park is just a few steps away.
“I’m there every day,” Farley said. “I’m the only person who goes out and plays with the kids. It feels good.”
Cooper said she is feeling cautiously optimistic, after the dark and lonely pandemic months.
“When people came in, and we saw each other for the first time — I feel like we appreciate these little simple things so much more now,” she said. “It’s like a kid-going-to-a-birthday-party feeling. It was unbelievable, and I felt that, and it really made me understand how much this means to so many people. That part, I’m feeling super great about.”
But she also spoke of the daunting year ahead. “There’s still so many unknowns and there’s a lot we’re going to have to rebuild.”