HARWICH — The council on aging, working with the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps, will be reaching out to senior citizens to better understand their unmet needs.
The COA has been functioning without a social services coordinator since April 24 when Susanna Keith resigned to take a new job closer to family in Maine. Because the town has a hiring freeze in place due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on revenue, the coordinator position was not considered an essential position and subjected to hiring freeze.
Health Department Director Meggan Eldredge told selectmen last week she became aware through the state Department of Public Health of the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC), in which graduate students in public health programs provide volunteer services to communities. She said the program grew out of the state contact tracing program, but includes other services to communities.
COA Director Emily Mitchell said the volunteers work in partnership with DPH and nine colleges and universities in Massachusetts that offer public health programs. The volunteers are master's and doctoral degree-level students who have signed up to provide services ranging from contact tracing to senior wellness calls.
Working with a script approved by the COA, Mitchell said, the volunteers call seniors to get a sense of how they are doing and whether they have unmet needs, focusing on nutrition, transportation, isolation, access to medications and medical care and even access to technology.
“If they identify unmet needs, the volunteers can share information directly about available resources or refer them back to us for followup. They can also provide followup calls to folks who would like the ongoing social contact,” Mitchell said.
Officials are reaching out to residents in a number of ways to encourage them to participate, including robo-calls detailing the scope and benefits of the program and sending email notices, Mitchell said. There is information on the town website and the May/June COA newsletter has additional information. She said about 25 people have signed up already.
“The APHVC program is certainly beneficial to the town and we encourage more Harwich seniors to sign up. It provides valuable feedback on how people are doing, what types of unmet needs people are experiencing, and allows us to follow up with people in need of additional support,” Mitchell said. “We appreciate the work they are doing to support seniors, the COA, and the town as a whole.”
The program does not replace the benefits of the full-time social services coordinator, said Mitchell. A key role of the coordinator is community outreach to connect with people who have unmet needs and who are not yet being served by the COA and other agencies. The APHVC program is limited to people with whom the COA already has relationships. The scope of the social services coordinator far exceeds the APHVC program, she said.
“The social services coordinator performs community outreach, builds relationships with seniors and caregivers, assesses needs and makes referrals to relevant area agencies and organizations, does home visits, assists with benefits applications, and advocates for the clients,” Mitchell said. The social services coordinator works closely with town public safety liaisons, assists in crisis intervention, develops departmental programming, provides education to seniors, caregivers, and the broader community on a wide variety of age-related topics, including health and wellness, community resources, legal and financial topics, home-care services, social determinants of health, and encourages planning for current and future needs.
“A key factor that enables the person in this role to perform their job well is their ability to build meaningful relationships with residents and to provide continuity of care and follow up,” Mitchell said.
The majority of the town population is over 60 years old, and with the number of people on the upper end of the age spectrum increasing more rapidly and seniors opting to remain in their homes longer, it is critical to fill the position, she said.
The importance of the position has become more apparent with the onset of COVID-19 as seniors bear the most significant health and mortality risks, she added. They are also likely to be disproportionately impacted by the economic ramifications of the pandemic and will face ongoing isolation and disconnection from the community.
Mitchell said she is planning to discuss filling the social services coordinator position with Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers and make a request to selectmen to post the position.
Selectmen Michael MacAskill asked last week if the needs of seniors were being met. The position was not declared essential and has created more work for the director, he said, adding he was pleased to learn about the APHVC volunteer program assisting seniors. Board members agreed, however, that they should have Mitchell come before the board to further define the impacts of not filling the social services coordinator position on the COA.