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Stephen Connolly, right, contemplates his next move in a Friday afternoon chess game at the Freeman Poole Senior Center, as Theo Hill looks on. A confident Mike Jones, left, awaits his turn.

SMYRNA — The Freeman Poole Senior Center is a second home for Theo Hill, a place to see friends, exercise, and, as she did Friday, chew the fat over a game of chess. Not having those opportunities during the pandemic, Hill said, was devastating.

“I think it was, for all citizens across the country, it was the worst thing I think I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Hill said.

“There’s a connection that the center, and the centers in Cobb County, offers our special group,” she added.

Cobb Senior Services facilities reopened, albeit on a very limited basis, last October, but have begun to greatly expand their programming and services as the summer rolls on. Meetings and seminars have resumed, mask mandates have ended, and card games and fitness classes are back. For regular users of the centers like Hill, it’s been a parting of the dark clouds of the last year.

“A lot of us don’t have the privilege of having people at home with us,” said Hill, who’s been coming to Freeman Poole for the last 15 years. “A lot of us, I would say 70% or more, live by themselves. And this is a haven for them to get out and connect with the community and friends.”

“We call it the Old Folks’ Country Club,” she added with a laugh.

As vaccinations become more widespread — Department of Public Health data shows more than 94% of county residents over 65 are vaccinated — some peace of mind has returned as well.

“I barely made it past the driveway for the last year … but I’m more comfortable getting out since I’ve had the vaccine, a lot more comfortable,” added Mike Jones as he slid a piece across the chessboard, his opponent Stephen Connolly grumbling in consternation.

That’s not to say Cobb Senior Services has been standing by over the last year and a half. During the height of the pandemic when seniors were all but completely confined to their homes, Deputy Director Sandee Panichi said county staff stepped up to bring the services to the seniors.

“We had a drive-thru meal delivery, our transportation was still transporting people to physicians appointments, our care managers were still taking phone calls for people who had any type of care needs, or maybe they needed rental or utility assistance … we were very, very busy,” Panichi said.

During that time, Senior Services provided nearly 76,000 frozen meals and produce boxes around the county, served food to over 15,000 seniors, and brought over 4,500 restaurant meals to a half-dozen senior high-rises around Cobb. That work involved partnerships with local businesses, non-profits, and other county departments, all of whom Panichi was quick to recognize.

“Phenomenal people,” she said. “I know first responders are considered medical personnel, fire, and police, we really consider ourselves first responders.”

It’s not just rounds pinochle and canasta on offer at the centers either. George Morse was fresh off a weightlifting session at Freeman Poole, which the 81-year-old Air Force veteran does three times a week to keep up his figure.

“I’m really proud to be able to use these facilities,” Morse said. “You don’t realize you miss it ‘til you don’t have it, like most things … My basic thing is exercise, but … they have occasional day trips to go all over the state, and I really enjoy them a lot. You meet friends here … and a lot of us become friends outside of here.”

Senior services facilities are open to all Cobb residents aged 55 and older, offering exercise facilities, billiards, instructional programs, dance classes, excursions, and more. Locations do not require membership or charge for entry, though some programs and classes have a nominal fee. Cobb has six locations around the county. For a complete list, visit www.cobbcounty.org/public-services/senior-services.

Theo Hill wanted to make something clear before wrapping up her interview: though the coronavirus situation seems to be improving with each passing day, at-risk seniors aren’t out of the woods yet.

“We need a lot of our communities to jump in and get that vaccine. I know a lot of people are skeptical about it, but we are a family, and we need to look out for one another … the variants that’s out there? We don’t want people to die, you know? I think over 500,000 is enough,” Hill said.

“It’s like riding a motorcycle,” Jones added. “You look out for yourself, and for everybody else around you.”

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