Loss of programs created hardships for participants and families.

New Bedford area social day programs, devastated during the COVID-19 pandemic, are making a comeback in 2023 with the re-opening of the Fairhaven Council on Aging program this month.

The addition brings the number of active social day programs between Westport and Wareham to three, down from six before pandemic lockdowns. Of the three that closed – Fairhaven, Dartmouth and Wareham – Fairhaven is the first to reopen. The COA plans to open Jan. 31, operating three days a week.

Despite financial and other challenges, Fairhaven COA Director Martha Reed made reopening the program a focus of her first year as director.

“It’s too important a program to not at least give it our full effort because it’s a need in the community,” said Reed. “Our seniors are hurting. We see the need every day and how thirsty they are for socialization.”

Westport COA director Director Beverly Bisch agreed.

Even though social day is not a medical model, like adult day programs, it supports the health and well-being of older adults, she said, referring to programs designed for adults who need care beyond what social day provides.

Bisch kept her program open after COVID lockdowns but reduced the number of days she operates a week to two. She’s been working to increase that number to three and will do so this month.

“These are people who live alone, who don’t drive anymore, and are just so isolated,” she said. “I know people think it’s not important because we’re not a medical model. But people are social beings and they need to be able to come in and develop friendships…If you can’t get to those people, they’re home alone for hours and hours and they don’t do anything.”

Social day programs offer camaraderie, physical and mental activity, meals, and purpose.

For example, two women who used to bring their husbands to the program and are now widowed come in for themselves now, said Bisch, adding, “They love coming here because it’s just given them a purpose to get up in the morning and get out. They have so much fun…They sing and they dance and they do arts and crafts and brain games.”

Social Day took a big hit during the pandemic, even for programs that managed to stay open. Lockdowns, the need for masking and social distancing, plus the fear of infection in a vulnerable population strained already stressed programs, so that when they closed, it was difficult to reopen.

Some, like Wareham, remain closed. Although the program is not gone for good, Wareham COA Director Sharon Rice said they’re not yet ready to reopen. “We’re currently trying to figure out how to make it work, but it is in limbo right now,” she said.

Reed too is uncertain about the long term sustainability of her program. Although she pulled together many pieces of the former program, leveraged a waiting list of interested participants, and worked with Coastline to make the funding side work, there are still unknowns.

“Financially, it depends on if we can run our full census. The break-even point was about 48 people a week,” she said, referring to the total number of participants the program can hold. “We’ll have to look at it again in three, six, and nine months to see if we are hitting it.”

Unknown expenses have hurt programs across the state, according to Patty Sullivan, manager of the Dementia Friendly Massachusetts Initiative at the Massachusetts Councils on Aging, who said programs receive varying degrees of funding through the state’s aging services access points who in turn are funded by the state Executive Office of Elder Affairs.

Each social day program negotiates its own contract with its regional ASAP at rates that vary from a low of about $30 per person per day to a high of about $70, according to Sullivan.

“During COVID, people really had to regroup. They used that time to see how they could run their programs differently and they began to look differently at the budget,” she said. To assist them, MCOA “developed a budget template that shows all of the expenses that you have to think about when you’re running a program.”

Fairhaven’s contract with Coastline, for example, is at $54 per day with $10 in additional, but temporary, ARPA funding, bringing the total to $64 per day. That figure includes transportation costs which are sometimes considered extra.

Like other social days, New Bedford closed its program during the pandemic but was quick to reopen when lockdowns ended, putting safety protocols in place n collaboration with the city’s health department. These included using masks, personal protective equipment, plexiglass dividers, and frequent testing. Vaccinations, while not required, are encouraged and are available on site when possible.

“We’re very cautious,” said COA Director Debra Lee, noting the social day programs have not had any COVID-19 infections. “Anyone who comes in has to be tested. Anyone who is out sick has to be tested.”

The COA opened a second social day at its Hazelwood site in October of 2020 because demand was high and because they needed extra space to be able to meet social distancing requirements.

Both programs offer treatment plans for participants based on their needs, establishing individualized short and long term goals, said Lee. For example, she said, a goal for an individual who is quiet and tends to keep to themselves might be to make one friend in the next 90 days.The program also offers relief for family members, a crucial aspect of social day programs that is sometimes overlooked, COA directors said.

“Caregivers need a break,” said Lee. “There’s a huge gap in services for folks who have memory issues and there’s a lot of caregiver stress or burnout that we’re seeing,” agreed Reed.

Caregivers, she said, are “looking for a safe space to know their person is okay so they can have either respite which is much needed, or the ability to work outside the home. Social Day fits that need.”

While the future of social day may be uncertain, COA directors agree that programs will continue to be crucial as an important piece of the elder care puzzle. Several directors see the need for more facilities, especially regional ones, that can accommodate larger numbers of people.

In New Bedford, Lee has a dream of opening a large-scale social day in a single facility that could hold hundreds of people a day. She’s identified a few unused sites in the city that might work but knows finding the funding would be daunting.“There is a definite need,” she said. “People are just so isolated and when they get isolated like that they need a purpose. Everybody needs a purpose. Having social day allows them to have that purpose.”

In Fairhaven, excitement is building for re-opening day.

Reed has a “dream team” of staff returning for the program: retired COA director Ann Silvia is now the Social Day’s activities coordinator, and former COA activities coordinator, Sally Bourke, is the program director. Both women know the program, know what’s worked in the past, and best of all, know many of the older adults who plan to attend.

Cooking programs, pet therapy, cookouts, music and dancing, and more are all in the works.

“There’s a party for everything,” Silvia said with a grin. “We already have the Valentine’s Day party planned.”