By Julie B. Maglio
According to the 2018 Hernando County Statistical abstract report, “Hernando has one of the greatest proportions of individuals over the age of 65 in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater MSA. At 27 percent, it is only second to Citrus county, which has over one-third of the population over 65. Approximately 4% of Hernando’s residents are over the age of 85, which is greater than the Florida average of 3%.”
With such a large senior population, there is a need for community resources to support seniors. The Enrichment Centers Inc. of Hernando County (ECI) helps to fill a void of senior services offering a myriad of activities for local seniors including board games (dominoes, mahjongg, Scrabble), crafts, art classes, support groups, dancing, deaf services, rug hooking, tap dance, yoga and exercise, entertainment, and friendship.
“ECI is a place where relationships are formed. Many folks come to share their time, skills, and talents with people they have never known before,” said Dell Barnes, Enrichment Center Executive Director. That is more important now than ever given the events of the past year. So many seniors, in particular, have suffered in isolation and lost friends, loved ones to COVID-19.
The Enrichment Center has been a part of the community since its inception in 1984. Early on the Enrichment Center was located behind Oak Hill Hospital and received support from Oak Hill Hospital. In 2011, the Enrichment Centers moved to Bayfront Health facilities and switched to receiving support from Bayfront. The Enrichment Center also provides activities at the Hernando County Mining Association Building.
For years the Enrichment Center collaborated on many local events. They were the Hernando Sun's partners in reviving the Tangerine Drop on New Year's Eve 2020. Every year they held a Senior Prom where a king and queen were crowned. It was a popular event and the last one was held in 2019 at the Glen Lakes Country Club.
“Seniors have never paid for the Prom, we also partnered with the Department of Elder Affairs and Hernando County Growers Association to distribute freshly grown Produce to Hernando County seniors for the past two years. Organized the Veterans Day Parade for years after the previous organizer gave it up,” noted Barnes.
The Enrichment Centers’ events have provided seniors with comradery and wonderful memories.
Bayfront Health has been the primary source of funding for the Enrichment Centers and they also provided rent-free space for the program at their Spring Hill and Brooksville hospital locations. Hospitals like most businesses were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as they experienced unforeseen expenses preparing for worst-case COVID-19 scenarios and revenue losses as fewer patients went to the hospitals.
Jennifer Siem, Bayfront Director of Marketing stated, “We value the relationship we have had with the Enrichment Center and their members over the last 10 years and will continue to be here to provide the medical services that Hernando County seniors need, close to home. As a hospital, the most important service we offer is medical care. In 2020, our hospitals, like others across the nation, were reminded of the critical role we fulfill in helping to maintain the health of our community. It is our duty to evaluate the use of our resources with the goal of increasing access to safe medical care now and into the future."
“We know activities for seniors are important. We will continue to sponsor community events and initiatives that provide opportunities for socialization, activities, education, and other resources for seniors,” she added.
The Mining Association Enrichment Center location will remain open until June 2021, while the two Bayfront locations closed at the end of March.
Executive Director Dell Barnes explains, “The plan now is to facilitate all or as many activities at the Mining Enrichment Center. Unfortunately, we will lose some of our members who can not travel into the City of Brooksville, but we want to offer the opportunity of continuing their activity safely and effectively.”
Barnes commented further, “We have members who literally leave their home to pick up other members who can no longer drive so that they can be with other seniors. They will lose the opportunity to conversate with other people and not remain at home by themselves. We are doing our best to find another location that would be able to service those members in the Spring Hill area.”
Whether the Mining Association Enrichment Center can remain open beyond June will depend on the amount of funding the program attains between now and then. There are limited reserve funds, but they will need at least $80,000 to stay open until the end of the year.
The Enrichment Centers membership took a hit from COVID-19, as members did not renew or sadly, did not survive. Hernando county suffered 441 deaths from COVID-19 and has 12349 confirmed cases to this point, but the impact of the virus has been far greater. Many residents have been limiting their activities to avoid crowds. They have stopped participating in group activities and go out only when necessary.
Additionally, with more seniors residing at senior living facilities, founding member Nick Morana explains, “We have been told that independent living, nursing homes, assisted living homes are hiring activity specialists to come up with ways to keep their residents occupied at the buildings where they live.”
Yet for seniors who do not live in communities with in-house activities, there is not a whole lot in the county to fill the gap that the Enrichment Center will leave.
“Seniors now have to think of possibly going out of the county for activities, pay more in fuel, and possibly a higher cost of membership elsewhere. Our annual membership of $15.00 has not changed in years which offered three locations with different activities. Members were also able to have direct access to support groups and one on one with representatives of SHINE (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders) and free Tax Preparation,” said Barnes.
The bottom line is as Morana states, “Without space and financing, the Enrichment Centers cannot function.”
Arlene McGowan, who has been an Enrichment Center member for over 8 years concludes, “We really need funding whether it’s the county, the state, or individual businesses.”
There is no doubt the Enrichment Centers program has been a blessing to countless seniors in Hernando County. Their programs have brought enjoyment and a purpose to many seniors’ lives. Hopefully, the community will find a way to save this essential program.