Phyllis McGuire | View from the Village: Harper Center lifts the holiday spirits


WILLIAMSTOWN >> The strains of "Auld Lang Syne" floated from the Harper Center the afternoon of Dec. 4.

It was premature, but appropriate as that classic poem by Robert Burns set to Scottish music was part of a musical variety show celebrating the winter holidays: Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year's, Kwanzaa.

Costumed as Jack Frost, Suzie Snow Flake and the Snow Queen, professional singers entertained an audience of senior citizens with song and amusing patter.

Other holiday events at the Harper Center, site of Williamstown Council on Aging, included a Holiday Green workshop hosted by the Williamstown Garden Club. Attendees were provided, free of charge, with everything needed to create a centerpiece.

"It is about the fifth year we are doing a holiday workshop at the center," said Carolyn Umlauf, greens coordinator of the Garden Club.

When I realized my Christmas centerpiece looked puny in comparison to those my table mates created, I added a large red and gold bow, blue ornaments, red berries and more pine branches.

"Now it's gaudy, but I'm a New Yorker," I said, poking fun at myself.

"I'm a New Yorker too," chimed in a tablemate named Mary.

"Oops," I said to myself, thinking I had unintentionally offended Mary. But as it turned out, my self-deprecating remark led to a friendly conversation, and I discovered that Mary and I had resided near each other in New York.

The holiday spirit was palpable when Champagne Jam performed at the Harper Center on Dec. 18.

Senior citizens from age 60 to 98, decked out in holiday apparel, sang along with the musicians' rendition of "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas."

The rollicking holiday favorite "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" motivated people to form a line and prance around the room. Marian Quinn-Jowett, outreach worker at the center, and Jackie Lemieux, the center's van driver, joined the line, laughing. Administrative assistant Heather De Marisco snapped photos of the merrymakers when they imitated the Rockettes, kicking up their legs in unison.

A woman who said "I loved to dance when I was young" did not let the toll that time and wear has taken on her limbs deter her from going to the impromptu dance floor and enthusiastically moving her feet and hips to the rhythm of the music, though using a walker for support.

I find such people inspiring. And there was the 98-year-old World War II veteran — but that's a story for another time.

Throughout the year, the Harper Center offers activities and programs designed to help older folks lead fuller, healthier lives. These include providing meals, exercise, Tai Chi, Yoga, health clinics, bingo, bridge, crafts, oil painting, entertainment and social functions.

In the computer lab, instructor Elaine Keyes has taught more than 35 senior citizens how to send email, install software and more.

And mainly through the efforts of Brian O'Grady, executive director of Williamstown Council on Aging since 1999, guest speakers come to the Harper Center to enlighten senior citizens on such subjects as managing finances and medical insurance.

It is only one of the many tasks and ventures O'Grady undertakes in order to help senior citizens navigate the journey we call aging.

O'Grady's affinity for older adults took root when he was a child. "I was around a lot of older relatives," he said.

"After years of contributing to our world as parents and caregivers, to the work force in every conceivable job imaginable, as mostly responsible citizens who answered to calls to everything from military service to jury duty to paying taxes, senior citizens need and deserve as many supportive programs as we can develop."

In 2015, the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging presented O'Grady with the Director of the Year Award in recognition of his exemplary work.

And with O'Grady at the helm of the Harper Center, holiday events brighten the lives of senior citizens at a time when it is not uncommon for people their age to feel "blue."

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown.


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