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Giving them someplace to go: Senior programs offer help, isolation relief for elderly during COVID-19 crisis
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Giving them someplace to go: Senior programs offer help, isolation relief for elderly during COVID-19 crisis

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Seniors, often depicted as inflexible, have pivoted repeatedly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, adapting to changes in routine, adopting altered program schedules and learning, if not embracing, new technologies that keep them in touch with family, friends and service programs.

As Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties returned last week to the restrictive purple COVID-19 tier, senior programs continued in their efforts to reach out to residents in need of assistance — from food to pharmacy runs, social interaction to counseling services.

“Just when we were getting back to a schedule, we’re shutting down again. It’s really demoralizing for all of us to have to do this again, and we understand the reason, and we’re not against any of those reasons. The facts are: It’s very frustrating and tough,” said Doug Dougherty, president/CEO of Luis OASIS Senior Center in Orcutt.

Before the March 13 state shutdown, OASIS was home to more than 60 classes and meetings per week. They varied from ukulele and choir practice to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, line dancing classes, bereavement sessions, computer workshops, ceramics classes and cellphone lessons.

“We’re hearing from seniors how isolated they feel,” said Barbara Wiley, recreation coordinator for Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department. “The people who used to come here regularly are feeling that loss of their social circle, support network, and the people they would have fun with.”

Like OASIS, Solvang Senior Center, Buellton Senior Center and Santa Maria Senior Center all initially saw social programs shut down entirely during those early shelter-at-home orders.

“Their whole lives changed. For so many of them, coming to the senior center for lunch was their outing every single day, and they were pleased as punch to visit with their friends, bring each other gifts, share a part of their days together,” said Buellton Senior Center Senior Coordinator Merrill Clayton.

Dougherty credited “an uptick” in death among OASIS members to stressors of the pandemic.

“People weren’t able to get out moving around with their regular routines. It’s unfortunate. I think some of it has to do with depression as well, and here we have the holidays coming up,” Dougherty said.

Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens Executive Director Joyce Ellen Lippman, said her phones were ringing off the hook in the early weeks of the pandemic.

“Seniors have been seriously impacted. It’s the fear factor, which is still very real as COVID spikes in our communities again here. Seniors are very fearful and being extremely cautious, as they should be,” Lippman said.

She has also seen an increase in calls for Adult Protective Services.

“When people are not being visited, people delivering aren’t going into the home, they’re only seeing people from a distance, or caregivers are under tremendous stress, Adult Protective Services workloads have been extremely busy,” Lippman said.

A dozen local agencies, including the commission, have since banded together with the support of funding from a variety of local foundations, to seek out seniors in need. As a result, 1,100 seniors were connected with services, chiefly food access through grocery delivery, meal delivery and meal pick-up programs. There was also an increase in referrals to and funding for counseling and support groups for seniors and family caregivers.

Those calls tapered off in October and early November as the community reopened and seniors became more aware and connected to shifting programs. While senior centers were forced to lock their doors to gatherings, their staff remained onboard to answer phones in hopes of connecting seniors to myriad available services.

“We’ve been here to answer any and all questions and meet all the needs we can; everything from ‘Help, I don’t have any toilet paper’ to whatever else we can do within the city, county and state mandates,” Clayton said.

Buellton Senior Center staff extended their meal deliveries to Los Alamos and points outside the Solvang/Santa Ynez service areas. Lompoc’s Valley Haven Senior Day Center joined the Virtual Activity program offered through Friendship Center in Santa Barbara ( OASIS staff contacted its nearly 2,000 members to connect them with resources and inform them of virtual crafting, exercise and counseling sessions.

“People have adapted remarkably, especially considering the huge digital divide,” Lippman said.

Wiley directed folks to the California Telephone Access Program, which provides specialty phones to address hearing and vision impairments. The program also offers free training on smartphone use, uses telephones to help talk seniors through connecting to virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom and FaceTime, and provides virtual training to improve users’ experiences with those platforms.

Santa Maria Senior Center retooled as many of its programs as possible to accommodate social distancing requirements. Friday bingo moved to a drive-in event with numbers called over an FM transmitter and winners staking their claims with horn honking. Noontime drive-in concerts were so well received they’ll continue into the holiday season with the Monotones Trio playing Dec. 3, and the Simply Saxes Quartet playing a singalong Dec. 17.

“It gives them someplace to go. A lot of people are getting stir crazy to some degree at this point. A lot of us are feeling some cabin fever. Sometimes the seniors coordinate with friends, so even though they can’t be close, they’re gathered around in their own cars, attending a shared event, so they feel more connected to teach other,” Wiley said.

The Senior Commission continues reminding callers to beware of scams that target seniors, and not to give out any personal information including banking information, passwords or other identification numbers to people they do not personally know.

“And as the holidays approach, remember there are a lot of options; lots of places have a Thanksgiving meal available by drive-up for pickup, or have it delivered,” Lippman said. 

She also encourages families to get creative with remote holiday festivities. She noted National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci’s plan: dine in person with his wife while on Zoom with their daughters.

Across the board, senior service agencies still stand by, awaiting seniors’ calls.

“We want to encourage people to find us, tell us what their needs are. We can help,” Lippman said.

And they continue planning for a brighter future.

OASIS, which has only locked its doors for national holidays since it opened in 1984, is moving through the county planning process for development of a new center. The project is slated for the Dec. 15 Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors docket with hopes of breaking ground in 2021.

“Getting a new OASIS would be a good way to get away from 2020,” Dougherty said.




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