Marcia Pokraka fixed her gaze on the bin of tennis balls next to her on a recent morning at the Peg Taylor Center.
It took her gloved fingers a little while to grasp one of the balls firmly enough to lift it, but she was patient. She raised it carefully and moved her right arm methodically above another basket on the floor in front of her and let go.
Pokraka lifted her head and grinned in triumph. Her occupational therapist, Amy Mukai, beamed back at her, and they celebrated together. Pokraka was then on to the next tennis ball.
Six years ago, Pokraka had a stroke. When she first arrived at the Peg Taylor Center in 2015, she was wheelchair-bound and could not use her right hand. Now, Mukai said, she’s started to walk and to eat breakfast without the assistance of a Saeboflex glove, which is designed to help those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries relearn how to use their hands and fingers.
For 33 years, the nonprofit Peg Taylor Center has served seniors and adults with health issues, providing personalized care plans that include physical, occupational and speech therapies, dietary counseling, and group recreational activities in music, art and pet therapy and seated exercise.
That afternoon at the center was a busy one. While Pokraka was working on her dexterity, another woman read aloud using an electronic program and a man used a stationary bike with hand and foot pedals. In the center’s main room, a dance class was underway, with participants tapping their feet to music.
Since the Camp Fire, Mukai and her colleagues have been helping more seniors, many of whom need one-on-one assistance and care.
In fact, Diane Puckett—the center’s founding executive director—said referrals have increased about 45 percent since Nov. 8. Before the fire, the center was processing 35 referrals and had 40 enrolled; since then, it has fielded an additional 57 referrals and enrolled 24 more people. Of the 55 currently enrolled, 11 lost their homes or had to evacuate (some have come and gone as their living situations have changed). Most of the survivors the center has served have been in their 70s to 90s.
Puckett said the needs of the county’s oldest residents are “a large concern” for her—approximately 25 percent of Paradise’s population was 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2013-17.
She told the CN&R that the center always has focused on keeping seniors physically active and socially connected—isolation is a major concern, especially post-Camp Fire.
“Our population has been hit hard by everything,” Puckett said.
Studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness can take a toll on a person’s mental and physical health. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Institute on Aging, isolation can, among other things, increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Those who find themselves “unexpectedly alone,” due to the death of a partner or separation from friends or family, for example, “are at particular risk.”
Many people lost their safety net after the disaster—their care providers, neighbors and even loved ones, Puckett continued. Others are still reeling from health complications due to the trauma and the smoke.
Families who have contacted the center have reported noticing anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Puckett said. But the program has seemed to help stabilize the mental health of seniors in the wake of the wildfire. This makes sense, considering that studies indicate when people engage in productive activities with others they tend to have a greater sense of well-being and purpose, and even live longer.
When people act withdrawn, frustrated or overwhelmed, center staff work with them to help them relax and feel more comfortable, Puckett said. In turn, this support has helped families.
For Rose Nystrom, the center provided a safe place for her mother, Gladys Brewer, to stay while they dealt with the aftermath of the disaster—both had lived in Paradise. Brewer came to the center frequently for six weeks before moving into an independent living facility in Chico.
Nystrom said her mother was apprehensive at first, but staff was “so welcoming and so attentive” that it didn’t take long for her to feel comfortable.
“They were just so kind to her. They tried to meet her needs and do things with her that she was capable of doing,” she said. “It was just a really difficult time and it was so helpful to me to be able to have that resource available.”
Moving forward, the center will be adding more seniors into its program: It recently received approximately $25,000 from the North Valley Community Foundation to provide services to senior Camp Fire survivors who cannot afford the cost of the program and do not qualify for Medi-Cal.
Puckett said the center’s biggest hurdle is bringing on more social work and nursing staff. The organization will continue to seek funding to meet the community need.
“Our goal is to provide as much stability and safety for people as we can,” she said, “to have [our center] be as enriching and wonderful, full of sharing and friendship and love as we possibly can, no matter what’s going on in the community around us.”