The Journal Gazette
Thursday, January 21, 2021 1:00 am

Optimism bolsters older adults

Maureen Widner

She cried when I told her the news – that the COVID-19 vaccine was available, and I could sign her up to receive it. I cried too, silently, as she went on to tell me she has not been out of her house in months.

Maria, at 82 years old, feels lucky that she has family who drop off food and supplies for her, staying for just a few minutes (masked) to check on her. Her tears were to celebrate what the vaccine means – she can hug her grandkids again!

Maria's story is just one of the many we have heard as our options counselors have answered calls from the community and our case managers have called clients. We are working with the state's Family & Social Services Administration to ensure older adults, those Gov. Eric Holcomb calls “most at risk,” are registered to receive the vaccine to stop the spread of the virus and reduce the death rate.

The day I spoke with Maria, 125,000 Hoosiers aged 70 and older were signed up.

Life with COVID has been difficult for old and young alike. We were all navigating uncharted waters.

To process requests for service in real time, we reconfigured our Meals on Wheels routes as need grew. We expanded the service to include a two-week supply of shelf-stable meals and added nutrition supplements as an option.

Our greatest challenge came from finding an answer to the question: “How can we reach community-dwelling older adults who have never reached out to us for assistance?”

The answer was Community Grab n' Go meal distributions – our no-contact, drive-through solution to reaching the masses. Our largest event was 600 cars one Friday at Parkview Field's Silver Parking Lot. My favorite car held a 20-something driver who brought his grandmother. He thanked us for helping feed her so then he could eat. Toby said she was too independent to take help for herself but would for the family.

Grab n' Go served 100,000 meals over eight months at 10 locations across nine counties. We conducted surveys and found 55% reported no access to food without Grab n' Go. Of the more than 2,000 older adults served, 80% had never received services from Aging & In-Home Services before COVID-19. The participants were grateful for us and we are grateful to the community whose generosity made this outreach possible.

Following COVID-19 mitigation protocols has been essential across all our services, but not easy. The hallmark of our case management services has always been “high touch, in the home, boots on the ground.”

Today, we understand the link between social determinants of health and an individual's ability to reduce hospital admissions, improve health outcomes, and remain safe and independent in their own home. Case management services can provide the appropriate supportive services and can deter nursing home placement for an average of three years.

To replace our face-to-face contact, we have piloted several telehealth options.

We have placed GrandPads, a tablet customized for seniors, with more than 100 clients. We are so glad to be able to see our clients again – and they, us! The tablets have an added benefit; clients can use them for face-to-face visits with family and friends.

One user I'll call Fred is a gentleman who lives alone in a rural area with no close family. He reports: “When I don't know what to do, I get on it and look at the dogs and read the news. I know there's a world out there and I feel a part of it for a little bit.”

I applaud him. He has found his own way to get through “this”: this global pandemic that has turned his and our world upside down, this “now normal” which does not feel normal at all.

The pandemic has been especially harsh on seniors but many seniors – like Fred, like Toby's grandmother, like Maria – have shown their resiliency. Research has shown that the older we get, the better perspective we have. Like these older adults, I choose to be optimistic.

Maureen Widner is chief operating officer for Aging & In-Home Services of Northeast Indiana, Inc.

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