There’s pool and poker, ceramics and Tai Chi. Whether you’re looking to join a book club, get in some line dancing or work on a puzzle, Valencia County’s Older Americans Program and senior centers have something to offer for just about everyone.

The VCOAP offers three main services to county residents 60 years old and older, said program director Nancy Gonzales.

It provides congregate meals at five sites, home-delivered meals and medical transportation.

“Those are our three main funded services,” Gonzales said. “If you are 60 and older — or the spouse of someone who is — and live in Valencia County, these services are at no cost; they are donation based, which isn’t required but always appreciated.”

Daily bingo games at Valencia County senior centers draw a healthy crowd.
Anna Padilla | News-Bulletin photo

The five senior meal sites are spread throughout the county, and some are housed in community centers owned by other agencies that partner with OAP to serve seniors. The meal sites are at the Belen Senior Center, the Del Rio Senior Center in Rio Communities, the Fred Luna Multi-Generational Center in Los Lunas, the Meadow Lake Community Center and the Bosque Farms Community Center.

Meals served at congregate sites and home delivered are created under the guidance of a state nutritionist and are diabetic friendly, Gonzales said.

“Each meal meets a third of the recommended nutritional dietary reference intakes,” she said.

If seniors are unable to go to a meal site for lunch, Gonzales said OAP staff will do an in-home assessment to get them enrolled in the home-delivery meal program.

The Older Americans Program also works with an Albuquerque nonprofit, Silver Horizons, to provide food to seniors who are in need. Gonzales said Silver Horizons comes to Valencia County to do a food drop typically during the last week of the month. The drops alternate between the Belen and the Rio Communities sites.

“They bring commodities, staples that people need. They serve people who are 50 and older,” Gonzales said. “We average about 100 to 120 people a month. The food is distributed on a per person basis, not per household. So each member of a household, even if they are a couple, can get food.”

To check the precise date and location of the food distribution from Silver Horizons, call the main OAP number, 864-2663.

“People should call that number for information on any of the sites, meals, transportation,” Gonzales said. “That’s the go-to number.”

Seniors can also rely on OAP for medical transportation, both locally and to Albuquerque. They will need to register for the service, which can be done at any center and requires a photo ID.

Gonzales said transportation within the county is offered for appointments between 8-10 a.m., Monday through Friday, and to Albuquerque for appointments between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday through Thursday.

“We can go as far north as Alameda Boulevard in Albuquerque,” Gonzales said.

All five locations are open Monday-Friday and offer a variety of activities, some of which are on a specific schedule, such as bingo; while others, such as a game of pool, are available at any time.

Some centers have created unique programs for their seniors, such as Belen’s senior community garden, which is yielding a healthy tomato crop this year.

There’s live music and dancing every Tuesday at the Belen Senior Center.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

“Programs like these are so important because social isolation has, in a way, become the new smoking,” Gonzales said. “Studies have shown that getting out of the house increases a person’s life span by seven years.

“It’s the idea that an object in motion stays in motion; keeping busy and active has been shown to help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s. It alleviates stress.”

With more people raising their own children while caring for their aging parents, programs and services offered by VCOAP can help a family have some peace-of-mind that their loved one has a support system.

“We can help people get to their doctor’s appointments. Our residents who get home-delivered meals, sometimes the driver is the only person they’ll see most days. We can serve as a wellness check in our community,” Gonzales said. “By having these programs, our community is taking care of our most at-risk folks.”

With an estimated 13,532 Valencia County residents age 65 and older, by 2030 New Mexico is projected to be the fourth oldest state in nation for those over age 60.

“We have to be ready for that,” Gonzales said.

Some seniors aren’t ready to fully retire and make use of the VCOAP senior employment program, and the city of Belen’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, she said.

The senior employment program currently employs three people who work 20 hours a week at minimum wage. The program provides ongoing training and job placement, often within the county, Gonzales said.

“It is a training program to help people get back into the work force who might otherwise have trouble doing so,” she said. “It is fully supported by the state and offers employees benefits, such as annual physicals and insurance.”

The New Mexico Senior Olympics has a simple motto: “You don’t stop playing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop playing.”

May Lou Chavez, of Belen, volunteered at the center for two years before being hired as part of the senior employment program a year ago.

Now, having just turned 70, she works part time as the center’s front desk clerk.

“I love it, love the people,” Chavez said. “I get along with everyone.”

At the front desk, Chavez answers the phones, directs visitors to activities and makes sure seniors sign in for meals and other services. While those are her main priorities, she doesn’t shy away from pitching in where she’s needed.

“I’ll mop, clean up, whatever needs to be done. I love the job, love the work,” she said.

Gonzales said the Older American’s Program works closely with RSVP, which has about 260 volunteers of individuals 55 years old and older.

RSVP volunteers can serve for just a few hours to 40 hours a week. The program is entirely free. The program allows senior volunteers to choose when and where they volunteer.

They also receive free volunteer placement and supplemental accident and liability insurance, which covers the volunteers when they are on their way to a volunteer project, during their time volunteering and on their way home.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.