Seniors West of the Tetons

Further Connecting the Community

Words by Kate Hull | Photography by Linda Swope

It’s not all business inside the Driggs City Center Building. On a typical weekday around noon, the aromatics of delicious food and sounds of enthusiastic chatter coming from the Senior Center beckon visitors to pop in, grab a meal, and maybe make a new connection.

But since March, it’s been all but typical. The Senior Center, run by Seniors West of the Tetons, along with the nonprofit’s indoor programming, came to an abrupt halt when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. But executive director River Osborn can’t wait until the lunchtime regulars fill the space again.

“Because our constituents are such a vulnerable population, it has stopped us dead in our tracks in some ways,” River says. The past six-plus months have required a creative pivot or two to continue providing other offerings to local seniors, from home-delivered meals to yoga and coffee on the plaza. In many ways, Seniors West of the Tetons, known as SWOT, is still cranking—it’s importance arguably even more at the forefront.

“We are still doing curbside and home-delivered meals, as well as Tai chi in the park when weather allowed and yoga on Zoom,” River says. “But the fact of the matter is, it is not safe for us to congregate, and yet it is one of the most important and critical components of what we do.”

During normal times, Seniors West of the Tetons keeps the calendar packed with health and fitness classes, social gatherings, and special programming. (If you’ve never been to the lively fall pie auction or participated in a rousing Seniors West of the Tetons golf tournament, keep watch for their return. You’re in for a treat.). The nonprofit was able to shift Yoga classes online, and Tai chi was held outside in the summer, with hopeful plans in the works for winter offerings in some capacity. You might have also seen the Seniors West of the Tetons crew at Grand Targhee Resort enjoying a chairlift ride, or by the river viewing sandhill cranes staging.

“We’ve organized field trips as long as we can be assured of social distancing,” says board chair Carol Lichti. She explains that the nonprofit also runs a medical room with equipment that can be rented for no fee and returned when no longer needed. The popular monthly foot-care clinics are available by appointment and other programs continue when possible. “We are looking at new ways to engage seniors and new programs,” Carol says. “And we’re open to suggestions with public safety at the forefront.”

The home-delivered meal program, commonly known to many as “meals on wheels,” has continued to grow in recent years. Led by kitchen manager Ceci Clover, a total of five lunches are delivered to each recipient weekly, with one or two meals at a time arriving Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. New during COVID-19 times, seniors also receive groceries on Thursdays to offset the need to go out and run errands. Carol notes that in 2019 the program had already grown by 50 percent. “Now, those numbers have tripled, and [this summer] we already surpassed the number of meals we delivered last year,” she says.

The commitment and passion of River, the board, and the many volunteers are apparent. (Their passion so resonated that this author decided to get involved with the board.) Part of the drive to keep moving forward is the understanding of the importance of what they do and how much it is needed.

“I don’t want seniors to be an afterthought in our community,” River says. “I don’t want them to lurk in the shadows or be forgotten about. We have this really young, vibrant community-driven population, and yet I didn’t see the seniors [in the past]. Now, I work toward making them more visible. I want Seniors West of the Tetons to be in the forefront of people’s minds: ‘Oh, there goes the Senior Center, doing their thing,’ or ‘There goes the bus.’”

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that nearly one-third of seniors live by themselves. A study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found that one fourth of the population ages 65 and older are considered isolated and at increased risk for loneliness. The study goes on to point to a higher risk of overall health issues linked to feelings of loneliness. For Seniors West of the Tetons, combating that isolation and loneliness is key.

“Coming into this job, that was one thing I really wanted to work to combat,” River says. To do so, she wants to change the misconception about seniors in general.

“We have an incredibly active senior population,” she says. “We have seniors who still ski one hundred days a year and are probably busier in their retired life than they ever were in their careers, because they volunteer so much. And, we are just a fun group!”

But beyond this community’s overly active bunch of retirees, River wants Teton Valley seniors to know they are not a burden, during these unprecedented times and beyond.

“We have this indomitable independent western spirit where we do things ourselves, we take care of ourselves,” she says. “And then people reach this certain point, whether it is COVID-19 or not, that they have a really hard time asking for help.”

But help in all facets is available. Be it a fitness class or a little extra help with meals, Seniors West of the Tetons continues to make sure all parts of the community feel a little more connected.

“This job has taken over my heart,” River says. “Coming into this role has been the biggest gift for me, and serving the elders of our valley is such a privilege.”

River reminds everyone to check in with their neighbors. Offer to run an errand, leave a card, or give them a call. And when COVID-19 subsides, Seniors West of the Tetons will have a seat at the table for anyone who is hungry and ready to connect.

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