SUNBURY — After Susan Ditty and her husband lost their son four years ago, the friends they made at the Sunbury Adult Community Center were a vital part of their recovery from grief.

Susan Ditty, 71, of Sunbury, has been attending Adult Community Center — formerly known as a senior action center — for at least 10 years with her friends. Local leaders said these centers are vital to maintaining the mental health of older residents.

“These people really stepped up and reached out to us,” said Susan Ditty just before playing cards at the Sunbury center, located at 601 Pennsylvania Ave. “They never even hesitated. They offered prayers and kindness.”

When the centers were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ditty said it affected her.

“It was like a part of us was missing,” she said. “It was part of our routine. It’s different when you can’t be there in person.”

Susan Phillips, 76, of Sunbury, said the isolation during the height of COVID made her realize how important the centers were to them.

“We couldn’t socialize,” she said. “It was always a nice break in the week. It’s been difficult to get it back to pre-COVID days.”

Paul Yucha, 79, of Sunbury, and Linda Leeser, 80, of Northumberland, said their generation was never one to discuss mental health issues.

“It wasn’t something we discussed,” said Yucha.

Sunbury is one of seven locations of adult community centers managed by the Northumberland County Area Agency on Aging (AAA). The Columbia-Montour Aging Office Inc. has five centers. The Union-Snyder Area Agency on Aging has four centers.

“They are very important to the mental health of older adults in the county,” said Northumberland County AAA Administrator Karen Leonovich. “The Centers provide various health and wellness programs to educate older adults about their physical and mental health needs. The centers provide a setting for older adults to have fun, relax, learn new ideas, share their own ideas, and to prevent social isolation.”

Columbia-Montour Deputy Director Brenda Appel agreed.

“The centers provide a monthly calendar with activities and programs that are beneficial to older adults,” said Appel. “They also provide a meal for those interested. The programs, activities and conversation with others foster socialization to support mental health awareness and needs.”

Dog Therapy

Another program operated by the Susquehanna Trail Dog Training Club’s Alliance of Therapy Dogs is also a benefit to mental health of older adults. The organization visits rehab centers, nursing homes, federal prisons and universities. They recently visited the rehab center at Geisinger Encompass Health rehab center, located on the Geisinger campus in Danville.

“Patients are so happy to see us and the dogs because of their situations,” said handler Connie Cuff. “It brings comfort to them.”

Cuff said older residents especially can benefit from the therapy dogs. Dogs can be “an antidote to depression” and studies show a visit can decrease blood pressure and stress levels, according to the alliance.

“It’s a good thing for their memories,” said Cuff. “You can see their whole personality change with the emotional therapy the dogs bring. We’ve had people who haven’t spoken in weeks start talking about the dogs, and the nurses have tears in their eyes. We have people who don’t remember anything, but they remember the dogs we brought in. They remember the dog’s names even if we haven’t been there in two to three weeks.”

Amy Wright, business development director for Geisinger Encompass Health, said the therapy dogs come in about once a month. They also bring in music therapy for the patients.

The rehab center isn’t exclusively for older patients, but a high percentage of them are on the older side. They typically treat about 24 patients a day who stay between 10 to 14 days. They are treated usually for strokes, accidents or brain tumors, said Wright.

“When the therapy dogs come in, you can instantly see how quickly they are relaxed and at ease,” said Wright. “The dogs reduce fear and anxiety in the patients. It’s just an overall positive effect. There’s such a shift in the mentality of the patients after the dogs leave.”

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