Senior Center Crisis

COVID-19 impacts Pasadena facility’s ability to provide vital services

Pasadena Senior Center Executive Director Akila Gibbs hasn’t seen anything like the panic and desperation that has come with the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

“Before I started working in the nonprofit world, I worked in TV news for 17 years,” Gibbs says. “I went through and covered major earthquakes and major disasters, but nothing compares to the chaos that we’re going through right now. It’s almost as if someone unplugged the world. It’s spinning out of control.”

Unfortunately, the Pasadena Senior Center is running through its funding like a sieve. Before the state lockdown, the center was hosting select programs for a few people per class, but there isn’t money coming in. Gibbs predicts the center will lose $1 million because of the virus pandemic.

“There’s not another organization in Pasadena that serves as many seniors as we do,” Gibbs says. “I think I need to get people to realize that. I want them to understand how much the city of Pasadena is counting on us the seniors in Pasadena are counting on us; Last year, 10,000 people came through our doors looking for programs and services. We provided 90 units of service.”

Now the Pasadena Senior Center is looking for help. To maintain its level of programming, the staff is looking for donations via telephone, 626-685-6756, or website,

An additional $2 million is needed to cover COVID-19-related losses this fiscal year if the Pasadena Senior Center is going to get through the crisis with the resources necessary to continue providing services and programs.

The center is one of only a few 501(c)(3) nonprofit senior centers in the United States and the only one in the greater San Gabriel Valley that offers such a breadth of services. No funding is received from any government agency. If the center is forced to close, there will be no other organization to fill the void.

“I think people really feel like we belong to the city,” Gibbs says. “First of all, that’s because of our name. The city does give us the building to operate out of, but we’re a nonprofit and we raise every cent we have for programs and services.”

‘Financial crisis’

The Pasadena Senior Center is in a financial crisis, Gibbs reports. She’s encouraging the public to get acquainted with the Pasadena Senior Center so they’ll go outside of their comfort zone to donate funds.

“What I mean by that is most of the time people will give to the disease that affected their family or themselves,” Gibbs adds. “If your mother died from breast cancer, you’ll give money to do more research on breast cancer. My mom died from Alzheimer’s. I give to the Alzheimer’s association

“People also give to their university or their church. Those are the top three organizations people donate to. If they have any money left over, they chose other nonprofits. We’ve been lagging behind for a while in donations. We’ve been trying hard to tell people how much our services are needed and how many people are relying on us. We generate money ourselves through a number of avenues.”

Entry fees for the Pasadena Senior Games are being refunded to the more than 1,500 registrants, and facility rentals for weddings, conferences and other special third-party events have been canceled for the foreseeable future. Fee-based spring classes cannot be offered, and digital alternatives are being explored.

“We do have a reserve fund that now has taken a really big hit, like everyone else’s 401K,” she says. “The combination of that makes our situation dire, to be honest with you.”

If the coronavirus crisis continues until June or July, and if the market continues to tank, Gibbs doesn’t know how long she can employ her staff.

“That’s really what it comes down to,” she says. “One of the things I’m most concerned about is social isolation, food and senior scams. We already know all the scammers out there know these lonely seniors are trapped in their house with no one to talk to. They start making phone calls. It’s pathetic.

“I have had a number of seniors over the last few years who have given away significant amounts of money and lost it, or given out their personal information.”

The Pasadena Senior Center hosts a free tax preparation program, which is canceled. So older adults are worried about who’s going to do their taxes. Gibbs says a scammer has already called one of her clients saying he/she would do their taxes if the victim gives out personal information.

“My staff and I have been calling more than 2,000 people,” she says. “We divided our client list and are calling everyone to tell them not to give out their personal information to anyone. Call us first before you give out their information. We have a hotline so people can call in. We check it and call people back.”

Senior Pasadenans are ripe for the picking, Gibbs adds. About 14% of older adults in Pasadena live below the poverty line. Nearly 30% of them live alone.

Those who rely on the center for critical services such as daily hot lunches available to members, the food distribution program for low-income members and nonmembers who need essential food at home, the telephone reassurance program that helps homebound older adults combat isolation and loneliness and stay connected to the center, and other vital programs consider the center a lifeline that benefits their mental, emotional and physical health.

“They depend on the senior center for lunch and our food distribution program,” she says. “It’s supposed to supply them with a month’s worth of dry goods and cheese.

“We’re struggling with how to distribute to 400 people. We don’t need 400 people congregating at one place where they normally do the first Friday of each month. We have a lot of challenges. Our portfolio tanked. We have a small staff. For all the people we service, we have a 19-person staff—that’s including custodians. We’re working around the clock to restructure classes, to get the word out about scams, to continue to call people so they’re not facing social isolation. It’s been a really big challenge. Our services are vitally needed.”

The Pasadena Senior Center offered 51 classes per week to help clients age in place.

“We really try to help people do that by having classes that stimulate their mind and body,” Gibbs says. “We have a lot of educational classes, computer classes, language classes. French is very popular. We had five French classes. Our exercise classes are really popular.

“We worried. As you get older, and if you don’t exercise, you start to lose muscle mass. We have these big senior games coming up. We have a lot of people who use our gym and take exercise classes. Last week, we could let 30 people come. This week they say 10. What we’re trying to do now is subscribe to Zoom. We’re trying to provide some online basic weight classes. If you don’t own weights, you can fill water bottles and use them, or they can do chair aerobics.”

What it comes down to, though, is money.

“Without the financial help of the Pasadena community, we may have to cut these and other services that are critical to thousands of vulnerable people at a time when they need our help the most,” Gibbs says. “I am appealing to the Pasadena community to help us get through this precarious time, which may last many months.”