How to serve seniors? Agencies consider future in the face of COVID-19

Jim Singel of Milton loads bags of grocery items into a CHEER van for delivery to homebound seniors. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

Senior centers and related activity hubs in Delaware currently closed during COVID-19 will have a different operational look when clearance is granted to reopen.

That new look may be long-term.

Such is the belief of Ken Bock, CEO of CHEER Inc., the agency that serves scores of seniors throughout Sussex County.

“First off, it is not what we’re calling the ‘new norm,’” said Mr. Bock. “We’re calling it the ‘next norm.’ Because in sitting in on presentations and webinars and Zoom conferences, I think there are a lot of people advancing the idea that there is going to be the next norm.”

Ken Bock

Like CHEER, preliminary planning is underway in post-COVID-19 at the Modern Maturity Center, the Dover-based beehive for those 50 and over in Kent County.

“Because we have so many programs here, every department is looking at what they would need as far as how their program would function, taking into account social distancing, and any restrictions,” said Cate Lyons, Modern Maturity Center’s vice president for marketing and development. “It will be a while before we open. Right now we are just focused on feeding a lot of people. We do all the food for Kent County (contracted nutrition agency, upward of 1,500 meals a day).”

Friday marked the first virtual attempt at bingo for Harrington Senior Center members.

“We have started through Facebook Live … armchair aerobics two days a week,” said Karen Crouse, Harrington Senior Center executive director. “Usually when they come here to the center, they win prizes. It is a little hard to do that virtually, so any member that is logged on, we’re going to put names in a drawing for a $10 gift card.

“We are looking at trying to figure out how to do more virtual programs. But again, we are trying to find things that keep their mind active now while they are at home. Because so many of our members are home alone, we’re doing phone calls to members that don’t have anyone checking in on them.”

With the aging and senior citizen populations considered by medical and health officials to be among the most vulnerable to coronavirus, additional measures and precautions are on the table.

“CHEER and a number of the other larger senior programs in the state, we are talking very regularly, and we are exchanging ideas and thoughts,” said Mr. Bock. “We are in a very collaborative mode with Modern Maturity and other peers. We are all trying to learn and share ideas as best and as safe as possible.”

Under Gov. John Carney’s COVID-19 State of Emergency modifications, senior centers will not open until the third phase.

Virtual programming, multiple attendance shifts and revised scheduling — all geared to enhance social distancing — will likely be the norm.

“We do not anticipate any reopening of the centers until September,” said Mr. Bock. “When we do, there are several things that we are looking at. First, we are developing and implementing new virtual programming that includes bingo, certain exercise programs with instruction, reading and book studies, whether people have access to video on a computer or even just audio through regular traditional phone or cell phone.”

CHEER, which operates seven activity centers in Georgetown, Greenwood, Lewes, Long Neck, Milton, Ocean View and Roxana, will be rolling out more virtual programming as the calendar slides into summer.

At CHEER, efforts to maintain safe social distance could mean nutrition/activity sessions would operate in multiple shifts, spanning mid-morning to mid-evening.

“Say instead of serving a single midday meal, which is what we have traditionally done, we may wind up doing multiple seatings, like a mid-morning, an early afternoon seating and an evening seating, and allowing time between each of those for cleaning the facilities,” Mr. Bock said.

In addition to its Meals on Wheels program, the Modern Maturity Center offers adult day care, care management, caregiver resource center, FRONT porch/early memory loss, event planning, SCSEP (Senior Community Service Employment Program) and transportation.

“We’re working on ways that we are going to be able to offer some of our programs, but probably much lower numbers,” said Ms. Lyons.

A popular offering is Modern Maturity Center’s fitness center. “I get calls, ‘When are you going to open the gym?” said Ms. Lyons.

At Harrington Senior Center, ideas are being considered regarding popular birthday celebrations and travel excursions.

“Some of our people are members in order to travel. We don’t know what that is going to look like in the future,” said Ms. Crouse. “It may be that we have to cut the number of people that we can put on a bus, which could then impact the fees if they have to pay.

“We are still taking people to the doctor. If they are comfortable going shopping, our bus will pick some of them up.”

Masks on the Harrington bus are mandated.

Harrington Senior Center is shuffling the deck to provide programming and activities in adherence with social distancing. Under consideration is a larger television for the dining room area to possibly stage movie nights.

Under the next norm, CHEER members may participate in nutrition and activities several days a week, instead of five days during the week.

Virtual programming would be utilized for large-scale activities, such as bingo, book readings and exercise programs. Additionally, there would be increased emphasis on take-home meals/home delivered meals, Mr. Bock said.

Safety precautions with CHEER’s transportation bus fleet is a concern.

“How to maintain social distancing in that kind of situation is very difficult,” said Mr. Bock. “We would require everybody to wear masks on the bus unless you had a medical issue. We are looking at different ways that we could rapidly disinfect the buses to turn them around for additional use.”

Center closures during COVID-19 have resulted in shuffling of CHEER staff.

“Our bus drivers are delivering meals now. There has been a lot of that change and shuffling,” said Mr. Bock. “To be honest, I think our organization, and all organizations are going to continue to need to be flexible. I think we are learning things as we go forward, but there will be an ongoing period of adjustments as conditions change.”

Also, when CHEER centers do reopen, protocols will be in place for everybody entering.

“Taking temperatures. We are increasing the number of sanitation stations and availability of hand sanitizer,” said Ms. Bock. “And before we do open, we are going to have our facilities professionally cleaned and sanitized to create the safest possible environment.”

That is also the plan at the Modern Maturity Center.

“We have to figure the safe way,” Ms. Lyons said. “We’ll have to test people, limit the number of people that can come in, and do a lot of disinfecting.”

Harrington Senior Center plans to poll its approximate 600 members.

“We’re getting ready to put out a survey that says, ‘What do you think? Tell us what you would do if you came back. Under certain restrictions, would you come back?’ What are you expecting it to look like here when you do come back?” Ms. Crouse said. “We’re trying to get some feedback from our members.”

Harrington Senior Center plans to add touchless hand sanitizer in each room and plex-o-glass around the receptionist area and kitchen area for food pickup.

“It would be nice if we knew what parameters they were going to put on us to open. It would be easier to plan,” said Ms. Crouse. “We have put a lot of thought into how we are going to move forward. You have to appeal to all ages. Those 50-65 like to travel, and there is the appeal to those that like to play cards, talk and socialize all day.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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