CHATHAM – Seniors are among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, and they can also be the most susceptible to loneliness and isolation even during normal times. In these extraordinary times, local councils on aging are working hard to maintain connections with seniors, maintaining many of their usual services and even launching new ones to try to meet changing needs.
“Outreach is particularly busy at this time,” said Mandi Speakman, director of the Chatham COA. While the agency's staff is working remotely, phone calls are forwarded to her.
“We're still encouraging people to call and answering questions. I can either help them or refer them to the correct place,” she said.
“We're obviously mindful of the fact that this is a time of increased isolation and loneliness” for seniors, said Harwich COA Director Emily Mitchell. Volunteers and staff are using a sort of telephone tree to place calls to seniors, “just to check in and see how they're doing, just to build a community connection.
A minimal staff is at the community center COA offices, and the agency's chef continues to prepare about 40 lunches per day which are dropped off at seniors' homes. Volunteers and staff had been taking seniors to shop for groceries and pickup prescriptions, but as of this week will only be delivering medication and food, coordinating with the Family Pantry of Cape Cod.
“We are prioritizing lunch distribution and assisting folks in getting essential groceries and medication,” Mitchell said.
The Orleans COA is delivering hot meals to seniors Monday through Friday in collaboration with the Nauset School District. The number has climbed to about 50 a day, said Director Judi Wilson.
“It's primarily for people who live alone, who are isolated and not able to do much food preparation,” she said. Volunteers from the regional Community Response Team (CERT) are helping deliver groceries and medications to seniors. The COA is working with Friends Market to deliver food for those who are unable to order online or have no one to help them. “This is a service for people who have no other way to meet their need,” Wilson said.
Ensuring seniors have adequate food is one of the priorities of the agencies. Chatham has maintained its mobile food pantry, run in conjunction with the Family Pantry of Cape Cod. Last month pre-packed bags of food were placed outside the Stony Hill Road senior center for clients to pick up. That will happen again this week, with COA staff and CERT volunteers assisting.
Meals on Wheels continues to operate from the Chatham and Harwich senior centers and from the United Methodist Church in Orleans (which also serves Eastham). Since February, the number of meals the program has delivered has increased by 5 percent in Orleans, 14 percent in Chatham and 21 percent in Harwich, according to Louis Eppers, nutrition program manager for Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands, which runs the Meals on Wheels program. Overall, demand on the Cape and Islands has increased 15 percent, he said, with the largest single increase in Nantucket, which is up 29 percent.
“We've seen a lot of people coming out and offering to volunteer,” he added. New volunteers are coming from all walks of life, including retirees, teachers, and many who have been furloughed from jobs. (Those interested in volunteering, can call volunteer coordinator Dawn Ericson-Taylor at 508-394-4630.)
Meals on Wheels drivers are leaving meals on doorsteps and not going into homes, but they are still doing wellness checks by making sure to see clients through windows or doors, Eppers said.
“The silver lining is we're seeing the best in people coming out every day,” observed Speakman. That's a difficult balance, however, added Wilson. “The number one thing we want people to do is stay at home, so we don't want to overly encourage volunteerism,” she said, adding that her agency is advising people to look to where they can help out with family and neighbors. “Start with your small circle first.”
The COAs continue to connect seniors with other agencies for specific services and programs such as SHINE, which helps seniors with health insurance and Medicare issues.
“It may not be face to face, but we can still connect with services,” Wilson said. One glitch the Orleans COA ran into was helping seniors get medication. The local Rite Aid recently became a Walgreens, and the system was not set up to take phone orders. Volunteers are now doing pharmacy pickups.
The agencies are also using technology to help seniors stay connected. In Harwich, Town Nurse Susan Jusell is leading an exercise program on Channel 18 geared toward seniors using items that can be found around the house. “She's very creative and engaging,” said Mitchell. The Chatham COA website (chathamcoa.com) has links to Zumba classes and other health programs.
“The longer this goes on we'll get more creative,” Speakman said. “It's totally different from what we've done before.”
Technology can be an important link to friends and family, but seniors aren't always proficient in its use.
“We're getting a lot of calls from long-distance family members, adult kids, concerned about their older parents,” Speakman said. “This is a generation that is not as tech savvy.” The Chatham COA's May newsletter will include a tutorial in how to use various types of electronic to communicate; help is also just a phone call away.
“I have volunteers ready and waiting to 'virtually' help people over the phone,” she said.
The chief concern of the COA directors, however, remains the wellbeing of their community's seniors. Depression, anxiety and other mental and physical issues “are clearly triggered at this time,” noted Speakman.
People are missing contact with others, said Mitchell. “I feel it myself, too. We're all feeling that isolation,” she said. “But we live in a strong community. I'm always in awe of everyone's resilience.”
“Everything has moved so fast,” said Speakman. “There's definitely a higher level of anxiety, which I think has helped them protect themselves. We haven't had to do much convincing of people regarding stay at home orders and best practices for keeping themselves safe.”
“These are scary times,” acknowledged Wilson. Seniors are at greater risk should they contract the coronavirus, and may not be able to integrate back into society as quickly as others. Large-scale gatherings of seniors may not be possible for some time.
“Obviously there are more questions than answers now,” she said. “But we're hoping in the coming weeks we'll have more guidelines.”
“We're still here,” Mitchell said, encouraging seniors to call if they need assistance, have questions or just want to check in. “I hope they reach out.”
Chatham Council on Aging: 508-945-5190
Harwich Council on Aging: 508-430-7550
Orleans Council on Aging: 508-255-6333
Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands: 508-394-4630