Pearl Cunningham, a client of St. Edmond Senior Community Center in Philadelphia, enjoys an active routine that includes spending time with (and cooking for) her grandchildren. Archdiocesan Catholic Housing and Community Services, which operates St. Edmond’s as part of a continuum of senior care, redoubled its efforts to support older adults throughout the COVID pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Pearl Cunningham)

As the U.S. wraps up Older Americans Month, seniors served by the Philadelphia Archdiocese want you to know they’re far from “sitting around doing nothing or playing bingo.”

“I’m a walker,” said 65-year-old Michelle Chance, a client of the St. Edmond Senior Community Center in Philadelphia, one of five operated by Catholic Housing and Community Services (CHCS) as part of its continuum of care to older adults in the five-county area.

A retired reading teacher, Chance was out for a brisk stroll as she recently spoke with CatholicPhilly.com, noting her energetic lifestyle shows seniors are “more viable and active” than ever.

Such strength was the focus of this year’s month-long celebration of seniors, an annual May observance sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

With pandemic risks and restrictions hampering senior independence, however, CHCS redoubled its outreach over the past year to keep clients from feeling isolated and idle.

In 2020 alone, staff made upwards of 5,000 wellness calls to ensure seniors’ physical, mental and emotional stability, according to Karen Becker, director of senior centers and in-home support programs for CHCS.

The agency also organized numerous vaccination clinics for seniors, partnering with pharmacies such as SunRayCentennial and Giant to deliver doses in low-stress, accessible settings with Spanish translation assistance — and even giving the jabs at residents’ front doors in the various CHCS senior housing complexes.

Many recipients said the shots freed them to return to something they’d missed the most during COVID: visiting their grandchildren.

Maribel Baez of St. Michael Parish in Philadelphia felt “so grateful” to have received shots at CHCS’s Norris Square Senior Community Center in March.

“Now I can see my grandchildren weekly,” she said.

For 82-year-old Pearl Cunningham, grandkids are a top priority – and they keep her on her toes.

“I have eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and ‘one-and-a-half’ great-great grandchildren,” laughed Cunningham, a St. Edmond’s client and a parishioner at St. Cyprian in Philadelphia. “They keep me busy.”

A good grandparent needs to “understand the younger generation,” she said, while ensuring they hold to some tried-and-true standards, such as “respect for others.”

Maribel Baez, a member of St. Michael Parish in Philadelphia, received the first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine during a March 19 onsite clinic hosted by archdiocesan Catholic Housing and Community Services at that agency’s Norris Square Senior Community Center, which serves a largely Spanish-speaking client base. (Gina Christian)

“We were taught to say ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’,” said Cunningham. “Even now, my kids’ friends call me ‘Miss Pearl’ or ‘Mrs. C.’”

An avid cook (she recently improvised a bread pudding with leftover ciabatta), Cunningham likes to “confiscate Food Channel recipes on the computer” and “try them on (her) grandkids.”

Barbara Camiel, who attends Nativity B.V.M. Senior Center in the city’s Port Richmond section, also enjoys her time in the kitchen.

“I only use fresh ingredients,” she said. “I do not use anything out of a can or with preservatives. I’m extra picky.”

Camiel suspects she had COVID early in 2019, several weeks before the pandemic was recognized in the U.S.

Despite receiving “heavy duty steroids,” Camiel said she was “sick for a good month,” sleeping for hours at a time.

During her illness, Nativity B.V.M. Senior Center staff made sure she had some of her favorite foods on hand.

“They brought fresh blueberries and ricotta to my front window,” she said.

Now fully recovered, Camiel is looking forward to resuming her volunteer work with a number of organizations, including the Girls’ Friendly Society Holiday House in Cape May, New Jersey.

Fellow Nativity B.V.M. client Carol Bates also relishes the chance to get back to one of her favorite pasttimes: shopping.

“Believe you me, I miss Boscov’s,” she said. “And I like to go to Penn’s Landing and hear concerts there.”

With COVID on the wane, increased mobility will enable 79-year-old Carolyn Truxell to finish her graduate studies in clinical psychology at La Salle University.

A client of CHCS’s in home service program, Truxell – a parishioner at Stella Maris in South Philadelphia – spent three weeks in a coma due to a severe form of COVID.

Hovering near death, Truxell felt “it was not (her) time yet,” and kept saying to herself, “I do have things to do.”

Her deeply held faith has sustained her throughout her life, she said.

“From the time I was a little kid – in fact, a baby, I do believe – I believed in Jesus as a brother, as a friend,” she said. “Anytime I had my back against the wall, it was always Jesus that I thought of, and always Jesus that I looked towards.”

Chance said the years have deepened her own faith as well.

“I respect it more as I’ve gotten older,” she said, adding that seniors’ gifts, talents and wisdom are blessings for society as a whole.

“Older Americans Month is an excellent idea,” she said. “Actually, we should be honored all year long.”