GLENNA TIBBETTS CALLS the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway a “godsend,” while Dick Cooke says it’s “a force in the Valley.”
The two are among hundreds of members who have benefited from the center’s myriad programs – from its newsletter, to the Meals on Wheels food program, to early-morning transportation, swim classes, brain-boosting activities and outdoor bus excursions.
Tibbetts, of North Conway, says the center helps her get errands done and keeps her mobile.
“I used to be able to walk everywhere in town and do errands. But since I’ve gotten now almost 90, I am not capable of doing that. So it’s been wonderful,” she said, adding that its bus service helps her get to doctors’ appointments.
Tibbetts said she was encouraged to go because she needed a place to spend time other than home.
“I was told that was very important for me to have outside interests and things to do,” Tibbetts said.
Tibbetts likes the outdoor exercise classes, game days, doing word searches and crossword puzzles, and playing Scrabble, Jeopardy and Bingo. But she also visits for the meals, to socialize, and to fit in an exercise class or two. She’s fond of their ham dinners and their spaghetti.
“They do a fantastic job at Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter,” she said.
Like Tibbetts, Conway resident Cooke, 74, loves the food there, which ranges from chicken Parmesan to liver and onions. Cooke’s favorite meals include mac and cheese, seafood Newburg, Salisbury steak and shepherd’s pie.
“It’s good to see all your friends and staff,” he said.
He raved about services at Gibson Center.
“We’ve got a real good thing here. It’s known as one of the best in the country. It’s a good program,” he said.
Cooke, an avid swimmer, visits the center Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and sometimes Wednesdays.
“I did about five years in a row at the (local) pool five days a week. But then COVID hit and of course that’s gone. I’m tickled to be back,” he said.
Something for all seniors
The center offers more than traditional exercise classes. There’s yoga, chair exercises, balance and strengthening programs, and even belly dancing.
“We don’t go for the skimpy costumes here, but still, we do have a lot of fun,” said program coordinator Jill Reynolds, who explained how the center serves its diverse population.
“What somebody who’s in their 90s is going to do is not what somebody in their 70s or in their 60s is going to do. But we’re tasked with serving people of all of those ages,” she said.
Reynolds organizes activities into three groups, starting with young seniors, who often like to volunteer; and middle seniors, many of whom still drive, are recently widowed or divorced, and need different supports.
“They need socialization. They don’t have the companionship, their kids are gone. A lot of these people may not drive after dark,” Reynolds said.
The third group, homebound seniors, no longer drive and require companionship and transportation assistance.
“They get out with our bus to go to doctors’ appointments, beauty parlor, banking, grocery shopping, coming here for lunch and programs,” she said.
The center offers additional activities like day trips, weeklong trips, games, cognitively stimulating activities, movies, and exercise programs.
Reynolds organizes bus trips, usually during the warmer months, to Franconia Notch, harbor rides in Portland, Maine, or even a sunset cruise. Sports enthusiasts could attend Fisher Cats baseball games, while others visit the Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Winter trips are limited to perhaps one or two a month.
Reynolds said the bus trips are a huge hit, with a full house of 14 passengers for most excursions. People get the most out of their outing by going out to dinner and having a drink or two before seeing a concert.
“Then, of course, we always go for ice cream,” Reynolds said.
The group doesn’t mind the late-night drives back to home base.
“If they fall asleep on the way home, that’s fine, because I’m driving, and I drop them off at their house,” she said, adding the night doesn’t always end in ZZZs.
“The bus is rarely quiet. They’re just chatting with each other all the time. Everybody’s always talking with everybody else,” Reynolds said.
Now that COVID vaccinations have afforded people the chance to meet with friends again, the center has been focused on reopening.
Cooke is glad the community lunches are back because they’re a great way for people to check in with one another.
“We have a menu that we put out for the whole month and people look and see what they like,” he said.
Cooke reiterated the value of socialization that comes with the center, but also mentioned how vital its food program was.
“A lot of folks, this is a big meal for the day, or maybe the meal for the day,” he said.
Recent trips have stayed local, but the center is open to ideas from guests. Tibbetts recently planned a tour for members to visit historical sites in her hometown — Chatham, a tiny enclave of fewer than 400 that straddles New Hampshire and Maine in the White Mountain National Forest.
“I learned a lot as I was prepping myself, to make sure I knew what I was talking about — things that I never knew growing up,” she said.
Reynolds applauded Tibbetts’ efforts at the center.
“She participates in all aspects of the Gibson Center. She helps with our Meals on Wheels program. She rides the bus. She comes in for exercise programs. She volunteers at the desk. And she’s 90,” Reynolds said.
Annual trips include a stop at Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill to eat, and then admire the lupines; a visit to Harman’s Cheese shop in Franconia for some cheddar; or a drive to the coast.
“We go over to the lighthouses and go to the lobster shack and everybody wants to sit on the rocks with the waves crashing around us. Then we go to the state park and we wander around and look at historic things and the flowers. Then of course we stop at Smiling Hill Farm (in Westbrook, Maine) on the way home for ice cream.”
Fun around town
Town concerts in the park are another popular event.
“They bring a picnic supper and a sweater and a lawn chair. I usually make brownies or watermelon. We share that for dessert, watch the town concert and see everybody there,” Reynolds said.
For next month’s Mud Bowl, a three-day fundraising event in which friendly football games are played in “knee-deep mud,” members plan to make a float for its parade.
Many activities might not happen without funding. Reynolds said the center’s transportation and nutrition programs are funded by the Older Americans Act and town donations. Another initiative through OLLI – Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes — offers educational programs. Additional fundraising initiatives include a thrift store, craft sales by professional crafters, and annual community-wide events. The center also depends on volunteers.
According to Reynolds, the thrift store has been thriving.
“The majority of the money that we raise comes from things like the thrift shop. With everybody cleaning out their closets (during COVID,) it’s been great for us,” she said.
Home visits are about volunteers interacting with seniors and making sure they can reach out to their grandkids and family members.
The center funds the cost of criminal background checks for these visits through the Dementia Friendly Community Grant. Reynolds expects 15 “friendly visitors” through 2021.
“I’ve been here 15 years. Trying to find the money to do that has just been hard,” Reynolds said.
They also serve about 90 to 125 people a day through Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to senior citizens who can’t afford them or who can no longer cook.
“We average about 20 people in the dining room. Several more who still are not comfortable eating in a public place (that) still pick up food to take home and eat,” she said.
Camaraderie and caring
Reynolds said seniors at the Gibson Center are a tight-knit bunch, and are enjoying their time together again.
“Their socialization, their camaraderie is so, so important. It’s amazing how they all look out for each other. They call each other, they reach out to somebody who’s not here, somebody (comes) in the next day with a card for everybody to sign for the person. That’s a really caring community,” she said.
Gibson Center for Senior Services is at 14 Grove St., North Conway.