Giving Thought: How are those who are elderly navigating the pandemic?
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot has been said about older adults and how they are a “vulnerable” demographic. While we should be careful not to stereotype or lump everyone of a certain age into one category, being an older adult during this pandemic may pose some added risks.
First, let’s acknowledge that many, many older adults in our community are very active and engaged. In fact, I think of myself as one of those. We take part in outdoor recreation, attend myriad social and cultural events around town, speak out about community issues, and give back in ways that matter. This has remained so throughout the stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders.
Some of us older adults, especially those with underlying health issues, have a heightened risk of catching the novel coronavirus. Understandably, then, older Coloradans have been urged to stay at home and shelter in place even more than others; we’ve been granted dedicated hours at the grocery store, but the fact is that some of us may be safer if someone else brings groceries to our doorstep.
So, staying healthy and safe for the last couple of months has meant a lot of isolation and alone time for some of our more vulnerable older neighbors. And the people who care for vulnerable older adults have realized that, while the food delivery and essential services are vital, so are the social connections that make life meaningful.
“Being social is important, no matter what age a person is,” said Chad Federwitz, Pitkin County’s manager of senior services. “We know from research that social interaction is vital and directly linked to a person’s health.”
When a pandemic shuts down your existing social life, then you have to get creative, no matter what your age. Many residents of the Roaring Fork Valley have turned to technology for social interaction, but computers and smart phones aren’t the solution for everyone, especially if they don’t have reliable Internet access. Federwitz and his team are working hard to provide both virtual options for entertainment, games and yoga classes and, for those who aren’t as tech-savvy, “activity bags” with books, DVDs, cards, puzzles and other activities.
Mary Kenyon, founder of Valley Meals and More, said she began with a focus on food delivery but realized that the pandemic has imposed social burdens as well. As she and her team do their rounds, providing food and running other errands, they make a point of visiting, talking and asking questions.
“So many people up the Crystal River Valley just don’t see anyone,” she said. She has customers who will comb their hair and put on nice clothes just to greet a Valley Meals volunteer who’s dropping food on their doorstep. “I’ve had recipients who tell me ‘it was so nice when so-and-so stayed and talked for 10 minutes.’”
Kenyon and others report that local support networks are doing a good job of delivering food and other supplies to local seniors, but she also wonders what will happen when the emergency funding (provided by governments and philanthropists during the pandemic) runs out and all of these residents will still need food, prescriptions and transportation to the dentist or doctor.
“We really need our best and brightest to take a look at this,” she said. “We’ve demonstrated the need, and this population is growing. All the numbers show that.”
The Aspen-to-Parachute region is fortunate to have numerous nonprofits that work hand-in-glove with local government to support adults in need, and the pandemic has shown volunteerism is alive and well. Hilary Lenz, executive director for A Little Help, said the pandemic motivated 750 people to join her organization as volunteers.
Based in Denver but operating in various Colorado locales including the Roaring Fork Valley, A Little Help provides neighbor-to-neighbor services — transportation, yard work, snow removal — for older adults. The organization was well-suited to respond to COVID-19, but the virus still changed the organization’s protocols. Now, for example, “rather than taking them to the grocery store, we’re bringing their groceries to them,” Lenz says.
Just as the pandemic has required people of all ages to adopt new habits and get creative about work and life, so it has forced people in the human-service field to collaborate and find new ways of meeting people’s needs. The pandemic forced Pitkin County to close its senior center and curtail meal service there, but Federwitz was able to provide food-delivery to many customers and curbside pickup for others. In addition, he managed to provide restaurant vouchers for county residents out in Redstone.
About a quarter of Pitkin County residents are 60 and older and, as you can imagine, the number of adults in this age group in the county — and the region — will continue to grow. For the past few years, leaders of government agencies, nonprofits and businesses have collaborated to ensure all residents feel welcomed, supported and a vital part of the community, no matter what their age. The pandemic has only strengthened this work.
“Now more than ever, agencies are working together to fill gaps and handle the needs out there,” said Lenz of A Little Help. “The valley really impresses me that way.”
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.
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