Local COAs Help Seniors Get Through The Holidays

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Aging , COVID-19

The Chatham Senior Center.  FILE PHOTO 

Nine months ago when the coronavirus pandemic began, few could have predicted that medical experts would recommend that families not travel or get together during the holidays to avoid spreading the virus.

“For nine months we’ve been seeing increasing isolation,” says Emily Mitchell, director of the Harwich Council on Aging. “There’s no worse time to be isolated than at the holidays.”

“This is hard, this is a very hard holiday season for people,” agrees Judi Wilson, executive director of the Orleans COA.

But the good news is that our three local COAs are offering a buffet of drive-throughs, food deliveries, calls, online classes and discussion groups to help seniors stay active and connected during the holiday season.

The Harwich COA aims to “find creative ways to bring a sense of joy, normalcy and connection to our community however possible,” according to its November/December newsletter, which is full of good advice, recipes and a schedule of services.

Grief can sometimes grow during the holidays. Julie Witas, the COA’s social services coordinator, offers tips on honoring deceased loved ones without falling into despair. For example, you can cook the person’s favorite food or donate to a charity meaningful to the person.

The COA will deliver fully-catered holiday meals on Dec. 22. The meals, prepared by chef Linda St. Pierre, will consist of roast pork, roasted potatoes, vegetables, gravy and festive cookies. The meal is available to those seniors who did not sign up for the Thanksgiving dinner and is available on a first-come-first-served basis. For information call 774-408-8310.

The COA encourages families to get together via Zoom. Seniors who are unfamiliar with the technology can call the COA and ask for Mitchell, who will help them practice the technology. Seniors who feel isolated can enjoy regular social telephone calls from the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps Partnership. The young people making the calls are all master’s degree and Ph.D. candidates.

“It’s a great program,” Mitchell says. “We’re lucky to be partnering with them.” To sign up for these calls, call the COA at 508-430-7550.

A senior outreach program through the Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands also makes calls to isolated or at-risk adults once or twice a week. “Conversations are confidential, and provide a safe place for older adults to talk about whatever is troubling them most without fear of judgment or repercussion,” according to the COA website. To enroll in this, call 508-548-7999.

In Chatham, the COA continues to provide essential services such as food and fuel assistance, caregiver support and more, director Mandi Speakman says.

But “social connection is probably the biggest unmet need at this time,” she says. The COA has had to become creative in offering social connection. One way is a drive-through “Treat Trail” on Dec. 17 from 1 to 2 p.m. For one hour, Speakman and her staff will hand out donated home-baked goods and treats during a drive-through in the COA’s driveway. The Sound Dunes swing ensemble’s brass section will perform outside to make the event even more festive.

“It’s nice to have a reason to get dressed and get out of the house,” Speakman says. She has also decorated the exterior of the senior center with “silly, ugly sweater stuff.” She says that donning costumes and decorating this fall “lightened the mood. Even that five to 10 minutes is making a difference.”

Chatham also offers online classes. “Cooking from your pantry” will be led by Heather T. Bailey, a certified nutritional consultant from the Optimal Kitchen, on Dec. 16 at 9 a.m.

Exercise classes include Zumba Gold Fitness and Go4Life Sample Workout.

And what about a reading group? You can read the first novel up for discussion, “A Piece of the World” by Christina Baker Kline, over the holidays. The group will be led by Liz Walker on Jan. 13 at 11 a.m.

Don’t know how to use Zoom? The COA has volunteers to help you. Call 508-945-5190 for assistance or to register for the classes.

“We’re about making connections,” Speakman says. “It’s a whole new world.”

Over in Orleans, volunteers delivered 93 home-cooked meals to seniors at Thanksgiving. Christmas meals will be delivered on Dec. 23. The COA has collaborated with the schools where students made cards for seniors. Also, Wilson encourages everyone to “reach out to somebody you can reach out to and just say, ‘how are you?’” The COA can also refer seniors to someone they can speak with.

Three times each week, home-cooked meals are delivered to seniors. The COA is always looking for volunteers to help with the no-contact delivery. “It’s been so meaningful,” she says. “Twice a week they can wave and somebody can say, ‘how are you?’ It’s nice to see somebody.”

The Orleans COA also maintains a regular schedule of newly-filmed fitness classes through Channel 18. A senior hour will be launched on Channel 99 from 10 to 11 a.m. this month. For more information, call the Orleans COA at 508-255-6333.

The Cape’s COAs will soon be banding together to provide online programming that will be shown beyond each town’s borders. That way, a wider range of offerings can be provided for seniors.