Seniors West of the Tetons 

Further connecting the community

Words by Kate Hull | Photography by Linda Swope

It’s not all business inside the Driggs City Center Building. On a typical weekday around noon, the aromatics of delicious food and sounds of enthusiastic chatter coming from the Senior Center beckon visitors to pop in, grab a meal, and maybe make a new connection. 

But since March, it’s been all but typical.
The Senior Center, run by Seniors
West of the Tetons, along with the nonprofit’s
indoor programming, came to
an abrupt halt when the COVID-19 pandemic
took hold. But executive director
River Osborn can’t wait until the lunchtime
regulars fill the space again.

“Because our constituents are such
a vulnerable population, it has stopped
us dead in our tracks in some ways,”
River says. The past six-plus months
have required a creative pivot or two to
continue providing other offerings to local
seniors, from home-delivered meals
to yoga and coffee on the plaza. In
many ways, Seniors West of the Tetons,
known as SWOT, is still cranking—it’s
importance arguably even more at the
forefront.

“We are still doing curbside and
home-delivered meals, as well as Tai chi
in the park when weather allowed and
yoga on Zoom,” River says. “But the fact
of the matter is, it is not safe for us to
congregate, and yet it is one of the most
important and critical components of
what we do.”

During normal times, Seniors West
of the Tetons keeps the calendar packed
with health and fitness classes, social
gatherings, and special programming.
(If you’ve never been to the lively fall
pie auction or participated in a rousing
Seniors West of the Tetons golf tournament,
keep watch for their return. You’re
in for a treat.). The nonprofit was able to
shift Yoga classes online, and Tai chi was
held outside in the summer, with hopeful
plans in the works for winter offerings in
some capacity. You might have also seen
the Seniors West of the Tetons crew at
Grand Targhee Resort enjoying a chairlift
ride, or by the river viewing sandhill
cranes staging.

“We’ve organized field trips as long
as we can be assured of social distancing,” says board chair Carol Lichti. She
explains that the nonprofit also runs
a medical room with equipment that
can be rented for no fee and returned
when no longer needed. The popular
monthly foot-care clinics are available
by appointment and other programs
continue when possible. “We are looking
at new ways to engage seniors and
new programs,” Carol says. “And we’re
open to suggestions with public safety
at the forefront.”

The home-delivered meal program,
commonly known to many as “meals on
wheels,” has continued to grow in recent
years. Led by kitchen manager Ceci Clover,
a total of five lunches are delivered to each
recipient weekly, with one or two meals
at a time arriving Mondays, Tuesdays, and
Thursdays. New during COVID-19 times,
seniors also receive groceries on Thursdays
to offset the need to go out and run
errands. Carol notes that in 2019 the program
had already grown by 50 percent.
“Now, those numbers have tripled, and
[this summer] we already surpassed the
number of meals we delivered last year,”
she says.

The commitment and passion of River, the board, and the many volunteers
are apparent. (Their passion so
resonated that this author decided to
get involved with the board.) Part of the
drive to keep moving forward is the understanding
of the importance of what
they do and how much it is needed.

“I don’t want seniors to be an after thought
in our community,” River says. “I
don’t want them to lurk in the shadows
or be forgotten about. We have this really
young, vibrant community-driven
population, and yet I didn’t see the seniors
[in the past]. Now, I work toward
making them more visible. I want Seniors
West of the Tetons to be in the forefront
of people’s minds: ‘Oh, there goes the Senior
Center, doing their thing,’ or ‘There
goes the bus.’”

U.S. Census Bureau data shows
that nearly one-third of seniors live by
themselves. A study from the National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering,
and Medicine (NASEM) found that one fourth
of the population ages 65 and
older are considered isolated and at
increased risk for loneliness. The study
goes on to point to a higher risk of
overall health issues linked to feelings
of loneliness. For Seniors West of the
Tetons, combating that isolation and
loneliness is key.

“Coming into this job, that was one
thing I really wanted to work to combat,”
River says. To do so, she wants
to change the misconception about seniors
in general.

“We have an incredibly active senior
population,” she says. “We have seniors
who still ski one hundred days a year
and are probably busier in their retired
life than they ever were in their careers,
because they volunteer so much. And,
we are just a fun group!”

But beyond this community’s overly
active bunch of retirees, River wants
Teton Valley seniors to know they are
not a burden, during these unprecedented
times and beyond.

“We have this indomitable independent
western spirit where we do things
ourselves, we take care of ourselves,”
she says. “And then people reach this
certain point, whether it is COVID-19
or not, that they have a really hard time
asking for help.”

But help in all facets is available.
Be it a fitness class or a little extra help
with meals, Seniors West of the Tetons
continues to make sure all parts of the
community feel a little more connected.

“This job has taken over my heart,”
River says. “Coming into this role has
been the biggest gift for me, and serving
the elders of our valley is such a
privilege.”

River reminds everyone to check in
with their neighbors. Offer to run an errand,
leave a card, or give them a call.
And when COVID-19 subsides, Seniors
West of the Tetons will have a seat at
the table for anyone who is hungry and
ready to connect.