Sarah Deck serves a dessert to Libby Hyatt in this undated photo. Community gatherings of older people are still possible at People Plus, provided they happen outside. Contributed / Stacy Frizzle-Edgerton

BRUNSWICK — It’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 struck Maine, and the state’s seniors remain the most at-risk segment of the population. Meanwhile, a Brunswick senior center has spent the last year balancing the need to keep its members safe but social.

People Plus has continued programs and services — ranging from group meals, transportation and art classes — to combat isolation, an issue that impacts older adults in particular, according to People Plus Executive Director Stacy Frizzle-Edgerton. She said the center serves just over 1,400 members in the greater Brunswick area, including Topsham, Harpswell and outlying towns such as Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Durham and Bath.

That same population is at greater risk of hospitalization or death if diagnosed with COVID-19.

According to the CDC, those aged 65-74 are five times at risk as people age 18-29 to be hospitalized with COVID-19, with 90 times the risk of death from the virus. People 75-84 years old are eight times as likely to be hospitalized and 220 times more likely to die; Americans 85 and above are 13 times more likely to be hospitalized and 630 times higher for risk of death.

Dr. Carl DeMars, vice president for Ambulatory Providers at Mid Coast Hospital-Parkview Health in Brunswick, said the majority of COVID patients are seniors. “Our older adults in this pandemic really are at the highest risk,” DeMars said. “As we get older, our immune systems tend to wane.”

The CDC recommends limiting social interactions among other measures to limit the spread of the disease. But social isolation can have a physical impact as well. A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal found that people with “poor social relationships” have a 29% higher risk of developing heart disease and a 32% higher risk of stroke.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national philanthropic organization focused on public health, noted on its website that “there is also evidence that poorer social connection is associated with poorer general health and well-being, as well as with newly and previously diagnosed type 2 diabetes.”

Frizzle-Edgerton said People Plus is determined to keep seniors as active and safe as possible. The center offers haircuts on Fridays and in-person activities such as exercise classes, all following CDC guidelines of social distancing, masking and sanitization.

Frizzle-Edgerton said the center has always offered many of these services, but doing it in the center’s environment makes for fewer trips to other places for members, which is safer.

“We’ve been trying to keep them away from the riskiest places,” Frizzle-Edgerton said.

Bavor, 89, of Topsham visits People Plus often for exercise.

“It is my second life down there,” Bavor said. “It’s a safe place. They check each one of us when we come in.”

Frizzle-Edgerton said the center has in-person social events such as group meals, but people are spread out for safety, and those gatherings are held outside. The mild winter weather, she said, has helped.

“We have been really fortunate that the weather has held for all our gatherings,” Frizzle-Edgerton said.

Bavor said she has attended those, too. When asked if it was too cold to stay outside, she laughed and noted that at one high tea event held this winter it was only 38 degrees out.

“We come with our blankets and coats and warm hats,” she said. “It was just glorious.”

People Plus in Brunswick is still offering exercise classes, both in-person and via Zoom. Courtesy / Stacy Frizzle-Edgerton

Frizzle-Edgerton said the center offers meal deliveries and has also been delivering masks.

She said volunteer drivers also take homebound clients to run errands. As of this month, Frizzle-Edgerton said, the center has 100 registered drivers and 600 members, an increase of 10-15% since March 2020. The drivers have completed about 2,000 errands since the pandemic began.

Driver Darby Babson said she often shops for groceries for older adults through People Plus. Babson, who used to run a van service for wheelchair-bound passengers, said she knows the value of services like hers for people who have trouble getting around.

“Transportation is a huge issue,” Babson said.

Karen Messick, another driver, said: “Some of these people can’t get out on their own. It has been a tremendous help for them. I don’t know what they’d do otherwise.”

Rhona Brown, 70, of Orr’s Island in Harpswell, said People Plus drivers have still been available to take her to critical in-person appointments such as doctor’s visits, but she may soon be asking the drivers to help pick up her medication orders, too.

“Without ordering online, that would be difficult,” she said. “Just knowing that they will (be there) is a huge relief.

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