Amid the coronavirus pandemic, archdiocesan outreach workers are redoubling efforts to deliver food, services and reassurance to area seniors.
“Even though we’re working differently, we’re still supporting seniors every step of the way,” said Heather Huot, director of Catholic Housing and Community Services (CHCS).
The archdiocesan agency provides a continuum of care to the region’s older adults through activity centers, in-home support and affordable housing.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have stressed that seniors are at greater risk for the virus, which is why Huot said her team took early action to “balance keeping clients and staff healthy” while “making sure seniors have their needs met.”
Of those needs, food is the most urgent, said Karen Becker, CHCS’s director of senior center services.
Although on-site activities have been suspended the agency’s four senior centers, which have been cleaned and disinfected, remain open for “grab-and-go” food distribution. Philadelphia residents aged 60 and up can receive seven frozen meals per person each week.
Clients are urged to call ahead of time to ensure staff can order sufficient portions to meet demand. A list of the sites, including hours and contact information, is available at the website CHCSPhiladelphia.org/covid19.
Becker said from March 16 to April 1, CHCS delivered close to 1,720 meals through the centers, residences and in-home visits.
At CHCS’s affordable senior housing sites, group meetings and activities have been cancelled, and a community wellness center at the agency’s St. John Neumann Place II location in South Philadelphia has been closed.
On-site social workers at the facilities continue to work while “taking precautions and educating residents about how to contact them” if seniors feel unwell, said Huot.
Parish eldercare and in-home support workers in other counties are still making home visits, but only after first checking with clients to ensure they feel well enough.
With a statewide stay-at-home order now in its third week, attending to seniors’ emotional well-being is increasingly critical, said CHCS assistant director Suzanne O’Grady Laurito.
During the week of March 23, close to 300 clients of the agency’s parish-based eldercare program were assisted with emotional support services, she said.
“We’re checking in to make sure they’re feeling all right, that they’re emotionally stable,” said Laurito. “The reactions truly run the gamut. Some say, ‘I’m going to get through this,’ and others are feeling very vulnerable and frightened.”
Becker agreed, noting that calls made by several staff members to clients tended to be “very long,” since seniors “want to connect with folks and have some sense of socialization.”
She added that one worker found clients “didn’t want to talk about the virus, but everything else” to offset feelings of loneliness and “heightened anxiety.”
The calls and wellness checks also help to reassure family members, said Becker.
“One woman asked if we could check on her aunt, who lives in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia,” she said. “The closest relative in this case lives in New Jersey, so there’s that uncertainty that families are feeling as well.”
Huot said that she and her team were also striving to address ongoing needs among clients, including access to routine medical care, while “working more creatively in terms of outreach.”
The agency is also “fine-tuning” its approach by exploring ways to potentially offer online versions of its normal senior activities, such as exercise classes.
Above all, she said, “we remain available to any senior in the five-county area needing assistance,” and stressed that her team continues to monitor the CHCS hotline, which can be reached at 888-679-7669.
Seniors have been “incredibly supportive” of CHCS’s efforts during the pandemic, said Becker.
“They’ve been calling to thank us,” she said. “Some even posted heart-shaped thank-you notes on the door of one of our centers. They’re really trying very hard to support our workers at this time.”
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