Senior Centers Carry On Programs While Planning Reopening

By: Russ Allen

Topics: Aging , COVID-19

Community Response Team members pack up food to deliver to seniors at the Chatham Senior Center in April. FILE PHOTO

The constant flow of information about COVID-19 over the past three months has led local councils on aging to daily changes requiring new ways of living, limiting activities and programs, closing buildings and dispersing staff and volunteers, and leading to readjustments in services and a rethinking of how to get things done. That is now being followed by a slow process of reopening that may continue for months.

As one of them said, “We are having to find new ways for doing almost everything we do!”

Directors of the councils on aging in Orleans, Chatham, and Harwich are members of a Cape-wide group of their peers who have adapted their COAs to the new social distancing, wearing of masks and gloves, group size limits, and staying at home rules established at the national and state levels to contain the virus and preserve the healthcare system. There are many similarities in all three responses, though their timelines have proven different.

Like most institutions and organizations whose buildings are closed, staff are working from home, and programs are subject to restrictions on personal contact and interaction. The COAs suspended many of their regular activities while determining how to identify and meet the essential needs of the senior citizens of their communities without requiring them unnecessarily to leave their homes. As a result, they instituted ways for groceries to be purchased, medications obtained, financial activities accomplished, and medical appointments kept, whether through no-contact deliveries or rides given singularly.

Among the most important activity that the COAs and their staffs have undertaken is a series of wellness calls to seniors to ensure that their needs are being met. In Harwich these are being made in partnership with the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps.

Also like most schools, houses of worship, and many businesses, the COAs turned to social media to continue activities that could no longer be offered at the centers. Primarily using local cable stations as well as ZOOM and other interactive apps, educational, entertainment, exercise and other programs are available for seniors to watch at home.

Now that the restrictions are being slowly lifted, the COA directors are planning for the reopening of their buildings and resumption of face-to-face contact and programming. Staff members will return, individual counseling resume, small group activities be offered, and in time each COA will be back to full power. There are no specific timelines for this to happen; rather each director will follow the guidance of the Commonwealth and their town health departments to determine when each phase can be addressed, with the whole process being completed by the end of 2020 or early 2021.

Helping seniors address the necessities of their lives has been a goal for all three COAs during this time, often working in collaboration with various government, volunteer and private partners. According to Director Judi Wilson, the Orleans COA makes meals available to seniors, offers a grocery shopping service as well as arranging for local deliveries from the local food pantry. Its outreach program offers crisis intervention with support from the town’s police and fire departments as well as its emergency services. It also distributes masks, arranges for bulk grocery deliveries and pharmacy pickups.

The Orleans COA also offers a senior fitness program on local cable TV, a resource that is also used by the other two COAs. According to Director Emily Mitchell, the Harwich COA has offered its popular “Balance Boosters” on Channel 18 and is in the process of obtaining the equipment that will allow it to hold ZOOM events. Its plans include offering an indoor vegetable garden program and a virtual exercise program for home use.

The Chatham COA’s priority goal during this period, according to Director Mandi Speakman, is to “preserve essential services in collaboration with other town departments.” Its outreach program offers fuel, food, and financial assistance, arranges with CCRTA for rides to medical appointments, and with the Family Pantry sponsors a mobile food pantry, offering two weeks of food for curbside delivery at the senior center. Its website offers information on virtual programs it is offering, including zumba on Zoom, fitness online, entertainment and travel programs. It also has sponsored a local cable TV show on Chatham and a cooking class by the program’s chef.

The similarities between what each of these three COAs offer is reflected in their plans for the future. As restrictions are lifted, each director is developing the best plan to return to their former status. Since these will be slow processes subject to ongoing restrictions, timelines are hard to determine and the actual rate of reopening will depend upon ongoing testing, tracing, treatment and the universal availability of a vaccine. In the meantime, all three COAs are focusing on continuing former and creating new ways to serve the senior citizens of their towns.