LACONIA — The Laconia Senior Center has been closed for more than a year because of the pandemic. But it’s not the only center of social life missed by older residents.

For the first time in 65 years, the Laconia Friendship Club, with roughly 90 members in their 50s through 90s, stopped meeting in March 2020 at the Leavitt Park clubhouse, where they shared jokes and listened to live music, educational programs on wildlife and light-hearted topics, and local experts discuss subjects of senior interest, such as how to recognize and report elder abuse.  Sometimes they watched World War II videos borrowed from the Wright Museum in Wolfeboro.

Mostly the club was a place to mingle and make new friends, said Betty Clark, who has been club president for the last 10 years. It began as a small group that met for picnic lunches on the lawn of the Laconia Public Library. Over six decades it expanded to include members throughout the Lakes Region, including widows and retirees living alone. Most are in their 60s through 80s.

Perhaps no one is as acutely aware of the club’s suspension as Clark, 73, who has been a member since 2008.

“We’re frozen in time for the moment,” Clark said. “I know the members are dying to get back together. We used to have a really good time. I just want to figure out how to do this safely.” She hopes that can happen this fall.

In the meantime, Clark misses seeing everyone in person, and even the organizing part. “It’s been pretty quiet,” she said.

When COVID brought senior social life to a standstill, Clark stayed in touch with club members by phone, and heard similar complaints that seemed to build over time. “They miss everybody. They miss the connection. It was nice to be able to mingle. You don’t get to meet people sitting there and answering the phone. The club helped you make new friends. We told jokes at every meeting.”

During COVID, Clark emailed the club newsletter to members with computers, and made sure to include something funny. The club set up a phone tree with 15 volunteers calling four members once every week or two weeks. 

To beat the isolation, Clark and two other widows formed their own social pod, hiking and having meals at each other’s homes. As far as taking precautions to prevent COVID contagion, “We trusted each other to behave ourselves.” This winter they stayed overnight at a beachfront hotel in Maine. “We were looking for something to keep us sane this winter. It was like a pajama party,” she said.

Over the course of the pandemic, the three have become close friends, and now do the “Bone Builders” exercise program at each other’s homes. “We were trying to make a smaller, safer society for the three of us so we wouldn’t get sick.” Each has a placard with the saying, “Friends become our chosen family.”

This summer The Friendship Club will try meeting at restaurants for breakfast or lunch  Now that mask-wearing mandate has been dropped in New Hampshire, and many seniors have been vaccinated, Clark and others remain cautious. During the past year, 10 club members died, not all because of COVID.

“My biggest thing about starting the club up again is I want to make sure everybody is safe,” Clark said. Before COVID hit, the group was set to have an anniversary banquet at the Gilford Community Church. “We’re going to have some kind of celebration when we get back together,” she said.

 In the meantime she receives plenty of messages, including: “Thank God for your emails!  I need a laugh every day.”  Older people are seeking contact, she said - especially those who live solo. “If I said, ‘Let’s meet at T-Bones on Friday,’ we’d have 40 people there and that’s too many,” Clark said.

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