EagleHerald Staff Writer

MENOMINEE—The coronavirus has kept seniors away from the Menominee Senior Center, yet it is busier than ever preparing and delivering meals.

“We do have an increase in our services,” said Renelle Betters, director of the center. She said demand for services has been increasing steadily for the past decade. Its staff of 15 prepares and delivers about 200 meals a day to seniors 60 and older demonstrating a need.

The senior center is constrained in what it can provide due to COVID precautions, but Betters said seniors today want more programming than those of previous generations. “They’re very active. It’s not the same senior center as when I started here 20 years ago.”

Back then, seniors had lunch and played cards at the Menominee Senior Center, Betters said. Now seniors want to exercise and stay fit mentally and physically. “They’re in their 90s and they’re still vibrant and smart. They want activities. They want entertainment. They want all those things to become sociable again,” she said.

“We are still doing what we can and trying to be as safe as possible during COVID for our services,” she said, such as providing craft kits to go.

But the coronavirus pandemic has postponed plans for activities. “It’s been two years now. I can’t believe it myself,” she said. “These people really miss the center … One of the things they really miss is having a craft day here,” Betters said.”

Local leaders should consider what seniors are going through, she said.

State Sen. Ed McBroom said the seniors he’s talked with typically have the same concerns as other residents. “You have a lot concerned about hunting or roads or grandkids getting a job or environmental issues,” he said. But he wasn’t aware of one universal issue seniors are focused on. One aspect of an aging population in the Upper Peninsula is fewer adults willing and able to volunteer for firefighting and emergency response. Young adults today want to spend more time with their families, he said. “That is adversely affecting our ability to recruit the next generation of volunteers,” he said.

Betters said the Menominee Senior Center has openings for paid drivers and kitchen staff. Many seniors have been stuck at home because of a lack of public transportation in the area, Betters said.

“This area, the Menominee-Marinette area, really needs to direct some attention to transportation for seniors,” Betters said. Cabs are not always available, she said.

The center also needs a larger facility so it can provide more services, she said. “We are in dire need of a new building to go forward,” Betters said.

“Our center has really kind of outgrown what we need. Prior to COVID, we were very limited to around 100 people we would have at events or a party. We were really stressing it to the max to keep that going,” Betters said. The capacity of the building, which once was a fire station, is about 110 people. “We would love to have a bigger building that would have the dining space we need and other space for programming,” she said. “There’s a rec department in Menominee where they don’t have per se a recreation center.”

Betters said the agency might be interested in talking with the city, but “It’s really hard to meet with the city right now. We don’t have a city manager at this time.”

The senior nutrition program provides home-delivered meals and congregate meals seniors can pick up at the curb since COVID forced the center to close its doors to senior meals and activities. “We are still meeting with folks one-on-one by appointment only,” Betters said.

But the Menominee Senior Center’s kitchen continues to prepare about 200 meals a day for seniors, plus another 50 or so for a Headstart program, Betters said. Statewide, about 1.3 million meals have been delivered to older adults in congregate care, according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office.

In Menominee, the senior center employs 15 workers who spend most of their time in food preparation and delivery. They order food, prepare it, deliver it and clean up so they can start the process over the next day.

The center asks for a $3 donation per senior meal and receives funds from the local millage and state and federal funds. The cost of a meal, including delivery, is about $8, Betters said.

Shortages of certain food items due to COVID means the monthly menu often changes without much notice, Betters said, so the staff has become accustomed to modifying what’s in the kitchen.