Somerset County Courthouse

Somerset  County Courthouse

SOMERSET, Pa. – Conemaugh Township’s senior center has become a second home for Alan Rummel in recent years.

That means he’s often stepped up to teach a computer class or help around the kitchen, he said.

As just one of the small group of volunteers who often oversee the place when part-time manager Melissa Ray isn’t around, though, the last few weeks have made it clear that what he called a bunch of “old people” don’t have the skill set to ensure the center is run safely and responsibly, he told the Somerset County commissioners on Tuesday.

The 71-year-old’s belief: The county’s pilot project, which has the centers run by regional managers who split their days among multiple locations rather than one, isn’t working for Conemaugh Township.

“There was a time when the fire alarm went off, and everybody else just sat there – they didn’t even get up or get out of the building,” he said of the fellow retirees who frequent the center. “You’ve got to understand that these people are old. They don’t think like young persons do. They need direction. When something happens ... they get confused. Or they get upset.”

An overcooked slice of pizza in a microwave caused the alarm, and the issue was resolved before it turned into a serious situation. But to Rummel, the incident illustrates the current “hands-off” situation at the center, “and that we need a manager down there every day,” he said.

“A manager keeps you straight. They make sure you’re checking food temperatures and taking out the garbage every day,” he said, noting that he’s seen instances where trash sat inside the center all weekend when he wasn’t around.

He said political disputes among retirees have sometimes caused issues, too.

Area Agency on Aging Director James T. Yoder said the fire alarm issue happened “several years ago” – before the COVID-19 pandemic and before centers reopened with regional managers and more reliance on volunteers.

With Rummel’s other concerns, Yoder asked for patience Tuesday.

“We’re still in the process of hiring an additional manager,” he said. “With COVID-19, it’s difficult to find people right now. This is an unprecedented time, and this pilot project we’re trying is barely five weeks old.”

Currently, two managers – one who now oversees the entire center program and one northern center director – are working with volunteer groups at the seven senior center locations. Another is expected to be hired to provide additional support, the commissioners said.

President Commissioner Gerald Walker thanked Rummel and his wife for bringing their concerns to the board and told them they plan to meet with Area Agency on Aging administrators to discuss his issues. But he also urged Rummel to be patient with the new operational concept, saying the pilot program has “kinks” that can be worked out.

The board adopted the management change, in part, because a number of volunteers embraced the concept, Walker said.

Several of the centers have adapted well to the change, led, in part, by dedicated volunteers who have taken creative approaches to keeping fellow seniors engaged, Yoder said.

Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said many of the centers have also been seeing their daily numbers of visitors increase steadily in recent weeks, even though it’s likely some regulars are still staying away due to fears about the delta variant of COVID-19. The board and the Area Agency on Aging are monitoring all of those challenges and adapting when needed, she said.

“This is uncharted territory right now,” she said, “and we’re assessing things as we go.”

The commissioners stressed that they remain committed to the senior center program and to the centers themselves.

“We may tweak the whole program,” Yoder said. “But it’s only been four weeks.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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