Harwich COA Social Services Coordinator Stays Busy During Pandemic

By: Debra Lawless

Julie Witas.  COURTESY PHOTO

Julie Witas, social services coordinator at the Harwich Council on Aging, has spent exactly half of her first year on the job working in challenging coronavirus pandemic circumstances.

“Almost all services at the council on aging are done in person,” Witas said during a telephone interview last week. “It was a challenge to go remote, but we’ve done very well.”

A major portion of the COA’s function lies in bringing people together and helping them stay connected, so it is good news that with a few exceptions, most programs and services continue through some form of remote delivery or communication. Services that absolutely must be done in person, such as foot care, are arranged by appointment, with both parties wearing masks.

Witas began her work at the COA as the program specialist in September 2019, acting as volunteer coordinator, scheduling transportation and signing people up for COA programs.

A native of Houston, she moved to Boston in 2004 to attend Boston University’s graduate program in social work and public health. For a time she worked in large teaching hospitals in Boston. A year and a half ago she and her partner moved to Cape Cod to be closer to his parents. She is the mother of a three-year-old girl who is attending pre-school.

On Aug. 24, Witas was promoted to her current position. The COA staff is short one employee because Witas’s old job has not yet been filled.

October is traditionally the start of a busy season. From Oct. 15 to Dec. 7 is the annual open enrollment period for Medicare — a time when seniors can change their programs. Through SHINE (an acronym for Serving the Health Insurance Needs of Everyone) seniors can get “free unbiased health insurance counseling information and assistance,” according to the SHINE website.

“Appointments are extremely popular at this time of year,” Witas says. The appointments will be conducted either over the telephone or through Zoom. Persons interested in making an appointment to talk to a SHINE counselor should call the COA.

November is the month to apply for federal and state funds that pay for home heating fuel. The COA can help guide residents through the lengthy application process that opens Nov. 1. Usually 50 residents apply for the grants, Witas says. COA employees help residents one-on-one either over the telephone or through Zoom. Residents then need to bring in their documents to the COA.

The COA administers the town’s Caleb Chase Fund, which is managed by the town. Caleb Chase was a West Harwich businessman who left the town $10,000 in his will in 1904 to help residents in need. Today the fund hovers at about $500,000. Up to $800 can be given for utility bills, rent, security deposits, mortgage and medical payments. And the fund is not just for seniors. Anyone can apply, Witas says. Although she expected applications to the fund to rise during the pandemic, they have not, and there might be an “unmet need” in the community.

In May, the state Department of Health issued a “Safer-At-Home” health advisory saying that people over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions should stay at home except for essential errands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how the COA has managed to keep its other various programs afloat:

The COA has gone from serving lunch on-site Monday through Friday to distributing lunches. The chef prepares the meal, then volunteer drivers deliver it. “It supports people in their efforts to stay indoors,” Witas says, and minimizes the number of grocery trips they have to make.

The COA also delivers orders to seniors from the Family Pantry of Cape Cod. Once a week, orders are collected over the telephone and prepared by the pantry.

The COA has been open now for a month by appointment, and some meetings are now conducted at the building. For example, an attorney who specializes in elder law is available for free 30-minute consultation appointments. Another attorney will make remote appointments.

Foot care clinics obviously must be held in person. They are a “surprisingly popular and necessary service,” Witas says. Foot care nurses come in one or two days each month to give treatments similar to a pedicure but “focused on the health of the foot,” Witas says. “It’s for people with mobility issues who can’t reach their feet. We’re happy we could bring that back safely.”

While exercise programs have been canceled, the popular fitness program “Balance Boosters,” taught by Town Nurse Susan Jusell, was taped and for a time shown on Channel 18. Witas is arranging for the program to be aired again.

The COA loans durable medical equipment such as walkers and portable commodes. When items are donated or returned to the COA, they are let sit for 24 hours then sanitized according to standards set by the town’s health department. Contactless outdoor pickup was instituted when the building was closed, and the loans are still operating that way.

For more information on any of the programs mentioned, or to book an appointment, call the COA at 508-430-7550.