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Making the connection: Bringing seniors together is Senior Center manager’s mission

Kelly Brochu described a woman she knew at The Hamptons Center Rehabilitation and Nursing in Southampton as someone who was always encouraging others to join her in activities, especially those who were reluctant to get up and out, with a gentle but persuasive manner.

“She was a bright light,” Ms. Brochu said last week at the Town’s Senior Service office, where she has just taken on the role of manager after 15 years as the director of therapeutic recreation at The Hamptons Center.

Bright light could also be used to describe Ms. Brochu, who is brimming with energy, confidence and plans to improve and enrich the lives of seniors on Shelter Island.

She was recently appointed to her new position by the Town Board, and was welcomed by Senior Services Director Laurie Fanelli, who said that Ms. Brochu is “a wonderful supplement,” and the addition of Ms. Brochu to the staff can open doors to more programs and services.

Beginning as a volunteer at the Hamptons Center, she was soon hired as an aide and then advanced to director of recreation. “I started as a volunteer and never thought it would turn into a career,” she said.

A mother of two, Ms. Brochu lives in Hampton Bays and had never been to the Island until a few weeks ago. She’s been enjoying the ferry rides — “I didn’t realize it was so short” — and some Island hospitality.

She recently went to Stars Café and was delighted to be greeted warmly. “A few people had seen the notice of my appointment in the Reporter,” she said.

With recreation serving the purpose of exercise and fun, it’s also a way to bring social connections and friendships, easing loneliness and isolation for older people, Ms. Brochu said. Although many Island seniors, who take advantage of the Senior Center’s programs, have a wide circle of family and friends, for those who don’t, the Center is a lifeline.

According to the Census Bureau, for those over 75, about 25% of men and nearly half of women live alone.

Loneliness at any age is not just an emotional burden to bear, but also affects physical health. An AARP research survey found that loneliness causes an impaired quality of life for adults over 60, and when social isolation is ongoing, is a predictor of rapidly declining health.

But it doesn’t have to be a dangerous spiral of ill-health, if steps are taken, according to research from The National Library of Medicine, which reports that overall health is improved in older adults by “promoting social engagement and helping seniors maintain interpersonal relationships …”

The latter is how Ms. Brochu defines her mission. She has plans to use the Senior Center’s bus for outings that will engage people, such as “trips to Foxwoods and the city,” she said. She’s also working on a program of water exercises at a pool in East Hampton, for health and fun.

“We want to bring people together to have meaningful experiences,” Ms. Brochu said.

But within the Center itself, she’s looking to find ways for people to meet, connect and form bonds. “I’d love to start a ‘Cozy Corner,’ a coffee bar with snacks and games and conversation,” she said.

Another way to keep people engaged with the modern world — and become more solidly connected to children, grandchildren and younger friends — is to bring iPads to the Center and teach people how to navigate the cyber world.

“If they learn it, they won’t be afraid of it,” Ms. Brochu said, “and they’ll be able to make connections. They can bring their laptops and phones if they want, and find out how to really use them. We can have someone sit with them and go over Netflix, for example.”

In just a couple of weeks on the job, she’s been impressed by the Senior Services staff, especially Ms. Fanelli, and by the seniors of the Island. “This is a good place to be,” Ms. Brochu said.