For Valerie Farmer, becoming the director of the Senior Center is part of her lifelong love for seniors and seeing their physical, mental, financial, and social needs met.
“We’re kind of a two-fold purpose,” Farmer explains. “We are the Senior Center, but we are also the Hamblen County Office on Aging. So, you know, the Senior Center end of things is more the socialization and activity, whereas the Hamblen County Office on Aging side is more of the programs and services and resources for seniors in this area.”
The Senior Center began in the basement of the Morristown Hamblen Library in the ‘70s and then moved to the current location on Lincoln Avenue in 1998.
With a well-rounded schedule of activities for adults 50 and up, the Senior Center promotes regular interaction and opportunities for new friendships—crucial needs for seniors’ mental and emotional health.
After many years of volunteering and serving on the board, Valerie Farmer became the director two years ago during the pandemic. The Senior Center had closed due to Covid-19, so when Farmer began serving as director, the Center was just beginning to reopen.
After a long period of isolation, many seniors were in desperate need to reconnect for the sake of their mental health, and a whole new group of retirees were discovering a new normal.
As with many businesses and communities, the process differed from person to person.
“It was kinda two-fold,” Farmer says, “because on one hand you had some people who were so ready to get out that they were like, ‘We’re coming!’ but on the other hand, we had a lot of our members who were very cautious, and it took them a long time to get back into the swing of things, and we actually still have some who have not returned, whether they’re still a little nervous about coming and being in that type of setting, or whether they have become accustomed to being at home, which is not always a good thing.” While seniors were high-risk for the physical effects of Covid-19, they were also high-risk for the social, emotional, and mental effects including the loss of friends and family, loneliness, depression, and increased dementia. The past six months Farmer has noticed an increase in participation, especially at Friday afternoon socials.
Despite the hiatus and recent changes, many things remain the same, and Farmer is dedicated to maintaining stability along with those who have worked at the Senior Center for upwards of twenty years.
Some of the most popular activities include socials, such as the recent Fire Prevention Tailgate Party, and trips, like the one to Jonesborough for the Story Telling Concert.
Bingo is a consistent favorite, with an average of 60-70 attendees, sometimes 100.
Throughout the week, the Senior Center offers a variety of activities to meet the interests of a diverse group of people—craft nights, various games and trivia nights, and multiple athletic opportunities through line dancing, tai chi, and more.
Weekly “Lunch and Learns” combine fellowship with helpful workshops on topics such as identifying and avoiding scams.
A $25 membership is available for seniors to make an investment, but everyone age 50 and older is invited to participate in activities or receive services.
Upcoming events include a trip to Asheville for lunch and shopping at the outlets on October 24th and a Halloween Party on October 28th. November 12th they will host their annual Holiday Bazaar at the Senior Center complete with local craft vendors, Sweetwater Valley Cheese, and goodies baked by members--including their famous pecans and walnuts.
In addition to the social opportunities at the Senior Center, the Hamblen County Office on Aging provides resources for seniors including free health screenings and assistance with Medicare enrollment, AARP Tax-Aides, LIHEAP Annual Applications, and SNAP applications.
Transportation is available for local appointments, and homebound services include Vital Visits Meals (home-delivered meals) and Senior Meal Connect (home-delivered food boxes).
Many of the workshops, activities, and services for both the Senior Center and Hamblen County Office on Aging rely on the service of volunteers.
Currently more people are needed to make deliveries for Vital Visits Meals and Senior Meal Connect.
The key, Farmer points out, is for people to find something they love to do and offer that service to seniors. At the same time, every place relies on elbow grease and expanding one’s own comfort zone.
Currently high school students 16 and up may complete service hours at the center, and Farmer argues that their interaction with seniors is crucial. Spending time with seniors helps young people to overcome their own discomforts and assumptions and provides healthy socialization not just for the seniors, but for the young people themselves.
In fact, Farmer’s own love for seniors began when she was very young, as she spent a lot of time with grandparents and great-aunts. “I come into work every day because I love these seniors. That’s first and foremost.”
When asked about stories that stand out to her over the years she has volunteered and worked at the center, Farmer said, “I think the thing that has impressed me most since I’ve been here…you just see…so many different people from so many walks of life, and they come here together for a purpose, and that’s the friendship and the fellowship. I find it refreshing how people can come in, and they don’t know anybody, and you know, I’ve had people come in and be cautious because they didn’t know anybody.
“But these people are so very welcoming, and they just bond together and become like a big group of friends and even more like a family. We’ve got a little group that has grown quite a bit since it began. They get together and go and eat after bingo sometimes on Fridays and go and play cards at each other’s houses.”
It’s the opportunity to form friendships that extend beyond the Senior Center that is the ultimate goal.
“That keeps them going longer. It keeps them active and engaged and improves their quality of life, and that’s what it’s all about. I know some people think ‘Aw, it’s the Senior Center; they’re just over there to have a good time.’ And they do have a good time. I’m not going to say they don’t. But they’re here also for those friendships and for that family atmosphere.”