As music pumps through the Northgate Community Center gym, older adults move their bodies to their own beats. One woman marches in place and turns her head back and forth. A man sits on the ground and stretches his legs. A group walks around the gym’s perimeter.
Azmera Gebre calls to the walking group in Tigrinya, their native language, and encourages them to pump their arms as they pace. She joins the trio and they all laugh as she mirrors their movements. It’s almost lunchtime; smells of cooked vegetables and injera, a spongy flatbread being prepared waft from the nearby kitchen.
Exercise and lunches are a standard part of the East African Elders Meal Program held weekly in Northgate for East African residents in the Seattle area aged 60 and older. Those who come also pray and talk about their shared experiences — many are immigrants or refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea and neighboring countries.
The program provides more than a nutritious meal — it’s been a lifeline for the East African community of older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Providers make sure each attendee is vaccinated, bring in healthcare workers for blood pressure monitoring and send the older adults home with groceries, hand sanitizer and transit maps. They also get to socialize, an amenity that was sorely lacking during stay-at-home orders.
The East African meals program is one of the sites in a Community Dining network coordinated by Sound Generations, in partnership with other organizations. Sound Generations serves King County’s older adults and adults with disabilities and is one of a dozen nonprofits benefiting from readers’ donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.
Sound Generations, which used to be called Senior Services, has operated in King County for more than 60 years and is the largest comprehensive services provider for older adults and caregivers in Washington state. The nonprofit focuses on four main concerns: food security, transportation, health and wellness, and assistance services.
The pandemic forced the nonprofit to modify how it provided services, and the impacts of the pandemic underscored the importance of the resources Sound Generations provides. The effects of social isolation hit older adults, a population already vulnerable to loneliness, especially hard. Deep, sustained loneliness can impact physical health, putting older adults at greater risk for some illnesses, as well as mental health, exacerbating or leading to symptoms of clinical disorders such as depression. Experts say this can especially be true for older adults who are immigrants, women and those who are low-income.
The pandemic took a toll on group members’ mental health, said Michael Neguse, a community activist who helped launch the Northgate program about three years ago. They were isolated and unable to go to ethnic community centers or churches. Other senior centers closed, but even if one was open, there would likely be a language barrier preventing the elders from attending.
Neguse often got calls from East African seniors, asking when the program would resume.
“They were reaching out to me whenever they had a problem,” he said. “They kept saying they had had enough. They were quarantining in their homes, and they missed the parts of meeting for lunch and socializing.”
The Community Dining program serves about 20,000 meals per month at 19 sites throughout King County. Some cater to one type of cuisine, like weekly Polynesian, Latino or Ukrainian meals, for example, and others provide a range of dining options and special holiday and birthday lunches. About half have reopened their buildings for indoor dining, with smaller capacity than before the pandemic. The rest provide takeout meals.
Along with Meals on Wheels, a delivery program for seniors and caregivers who may have difficulty shopping or cooking, the organization is on track to provide nearly 750,000 meals this year, according to Brittany Blue, the nonprofit’s chief marketing and philanthropy officer. That’s an increase from 2020, when the two programs provided more 600,000 meals.
Also in 2020, Sound Generations’ transportation volunteers gave about 12,500 rides to seniors to healthcare appointments; caregiver support helped about 400 caregivers with one-on-one counseling and group sessions; and the Geriatric Regional Assessment Team provided assessments and interventions for 81 older adults who were escalating toward crisis.
For the Community Dining program, the different offerings are what make it unique, Blue said. The chefs look at the community coming through their door and make sure the foods are culturally appropriate, rather than asking the diners to acclimate or eat foods they may not be familiar with.
“You don’t have to give up your culture to eat well,” Blue said.
But before eating, they work up an appetite with exercise. One of the women in the walking trio is Degnesh Mengesha, who is in her 70s and immigrated from Ethiopia about 15 years ago. She has high blood pressure, so she’s not able to do much exercise at her Ballard home, where she lives alone, like about three-fourths of the participants in Sound Generations’ food security programs. But at the Northgate program she can move around while supervised, and her blood pressure has lowered since she began going to the exercise sessions.
“It’s good for keeping in shape, and for coordination,” Mengesha said through a translator.
When she was done speaking, she joined her two exercise mates and continued their walk around the gym.
In King County, more than 40,000 King County residents were born in East Africa, and the community has grown rapidly over the last several years. The population is largely concentrated in Southeast Seattle, but the number of residents has increased in North Seattle, which community members attribute in part to gentrification.
The group that comes to the Northgate program is smaller than before the pandemic, when about 50 people would come each week. Each attendee wears a mask and, during meals, sits at the end of long tables distanced from each other. Everyone must also present proof of vaccination. They walk from the gym to a multipurpose room next to the kitchen, and after a prayer, Gebre brings out a tray of soup bowls while one worker spoons servings onto plates and another organizes grocery bags.
During the pandemic, Sound Generations heard stories of older adults on a limited income who had to choose between paying for medications or a nutritious meal. Organizers also realized they needed to add more services than just meals and exercise, Blue said. So on this Tuesday, for example, a table in the corner of the room had stacks of pamphlets and flyers about transportation, with bus maps and directions for how to get an ORCA card.
“It didn’t sit right for us to say ‘come to a meal’ and then say ‘you need to go here for additional resources,’” she said. “They present so many needs, so we wanted to take that additional step to address all their needs.”
As they leave, each diner takes a to-go bag of groceries like kale, butter and lentils. They’ll be back next week for the same meal, exercise and socialization.
“Especially during COVID, people were alone,” Gebre said. “When they get together, you see their happiness. That makes me happy.”