As worries about the virus spread, local agencies look for creative way to support vulnerable seniors

Volunteers Eric Wilcox, Melody Norwood and Alice Rundle prepare to distribute sack meals to Edmonds Senior Center clients who depend on the center’s meal services for their basic nutrition. For many this is their only source of regular meals.

With the continuing spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), local communities have seen closures and cutbacks in programs and services at senior centers and other organizations who target senior populations. Yet, creative measures are being deployed to maintain the most essential services — in particular, meals — to those who depend on them.

Lynnwood-based Homage is a key player, providing meals, transportation and vital in-home services to older adults and people with disabilities. As reported earlier, Homage’s 196th Street center has closed until further notice. While this means that regular meal service will not be available as usual, Homage is providing take-out meals. For some, this is their only source of regular nutrition and is an essential service.

“Our first point of business is ensuring that folks are safe, and providing nutritious meals is a very big part of what we do,” explained Cynthia Andrews, Homage senior marketing and communications manager. “In addition to the take-out meals, we’re continuing to provide our Meals on Wheels service, which is essential for our mobility-impaired and home-bound clients.  Our drivers not only deliver the meals but also go into the clients’ homes to help put the groceries away. Each driver makes about 30 deliveries per day, and the clients absolutely depend on this service  — for many it’s their only source of food.”

Homage’s comprehensive services extend beyond meals, including home repair services, DART and TAP transportation services, and in-home visits and assessments by their family caregiver team.

“While we’ve temporarily suspended in-home visits due to the coronavirus outbreak, we’re continuing with Meals on Wheels, home repair, and the DART and TAP transportation services,” continued Andrews. Explaining that Homage is taking all measures to protect both workers and clients, she stressed that all drivers and anyone going into homes wear protective gear including masks and gloves, and take all precautionary sanitation measures.

“Before we go out to any home we ask if anyone in the household is or has been sick, and we warn them not to be shocked when masked and gloved workers show up at their door,” she added. “We want our clients to feel comfortable and safe, and help keep them safe from infection during this crisis.”

Homage’s office operations have also been affected, with 80 percent of their 200-person admin staff working from home. This includes staff who answer the help line, 425-513-1900.

“Our brand-new IT department did an absolutely stellar job in getting this organized,” said Andrews. “They managed the transition for help line staff to working remotely from home, with everything from laptops to phone lines to connecting all the necessary resources. Many thanks to IT Director Jarrod Nilles and Network Administration Matt Miracle for pulling this off in one week.”

The sack lunches are prepared daily in Homage’s Everett facility, and include a balanced variety of sandwiches, beverages, snacks, fruits and vegetables. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Homage meal services extend beyond their own facility, as they join hands with local senior centers to help maintain nutritional continuity for their clients.

According to City of Lynnwood spokesperson Julie Moore, the Lynnwood Senior Center is closed and all programming is cancelled until further notice. This includes the Volunteers in Public Safety (VIPS) program, where mostly older adult volunteers help in such areas as delivering inter-office mail, helping at community events, and assisting the police with house checks when the owners are on vacation.

“We are primarily a recreational center for older adults providing fitness and wellness programs, trips and similar offerings,” she explained. “Social services are provided through Homage, and while we’re closed, our clientele will continue receiving these through Homage.

For the present, the center remains available for party and event rentals.

“We will be closely monitoring the coronavirus situation, and plan to re-evaluate on March 22 to decide whether to cut back, continue or enhance our response,” she added.

The Edmonds Senior Center is also closed to activities, and Senior Center Executive Director Farrell Fleming says the organization is “most concerned about the folks who really depend on our food service. While our in-person lunch is not operating, we’re working with Homage to take up the slack with sack meals distributed every day at the Holy Trinity Church on Daley Street. For many, this is their only source of food, meaning that a number of clients pick up two sack meals, one for lunch and the second for dinner. This will continue indefinitely until we can resume our usual range of services.”

Farrell Fleming

Other services that continue for the present include nurse and social services, who will continue to see clients by appointment. While some of these will be in-home for those who can’t get out, most will be conducted at Trinity Lutheran and Church of God, facilities where social worker Michelle Reitan and nurse Sue Shearer maintain office space, Fleming said.

“Another service that we’ll maintain is the weekly Bastyr clinic that we operate jointly with the Mountlake Terrace Senior Center,” Fleming continued.  “MLT staff is continuing to work at the center for the present, and unless things change, we will continue to handle appointments and scheduling, and the Bastyr clinic will continue at that facility.”

While the Edmonds Senior Center Thrift Store remains closed, Fleming pointed out that donations continue to be accepted at the Westgate thrift store location from 10 a.m. till noon Monday through Saturday.

Complicating matters for Edmonds is that during construction of their new Waterfront Center building, their programs are not in a single place where they have control over maintenance and custodial operations, but scattered over more than a dozen locations throughout the community.  “This makes something as simple as setting sanitation standards particularly difficult, because we don’t have direct control in these other facilities,” added Fleming.

In addition, the Edmonds Senior Center board and governing committees decided earlier this week to do all their work remotely, holding virtual meetings via teleconference or Skype.

“We’re all learning a lot about virtual meetings,” added Fleming. “While I feel there’s no substitute for people meeting people face to face, this may work as least as well or even better in some cases — and who knows, maybe some will stay that way.”

In Mountlake Terrace, the community senior center itself at Ballinger Park is closed and has temporarily shut down programs aimed at the senior population, but rental and outside group programs continue for the present, according to Executive Director Lisa Norton.

Accustomed to serving hot lunches five days per week to between 10 and 40 seniors, the MLT Center is now in a “holding pattern” with meals, and will decide early next week whether to take part in Homage’s sack meal program. “We’ve been in contact with Homage, and we’re ready to start at a moment’s notice,” added Norton.

Lisa Norton

“For now our administrative staff remains on site, but we’re watching every day as the situation develops, and are preparing to ramp up our closures if necessary,” explained Norton, adding that because the center depends on donations and facility rentals for income, should the situation worsen to where they will need to cut back on rentals, the admin staff may not be able to continue being present. “We’re an important part of our community, so it’s really important for groups like AA and others to continue their programming and being able to use our facility,” she added.

One of these groups is the Creekside Church, which has been running the weekly Mountlake Terrace Neighborhood Table out of the MLT Center for more than a year, providing free, multi-course meals free of charge to anyone who shows. The meal runs every Tuesday from 5 to 6:15 p.m.

“Each week we serve anywhere from 25 to 50 people,” said Creekside Pastor Mark Miller. “We welcome anyone in the neighborhood who may be in need of food or community. All ages are welcome.”

Miller went on to stress that in light of the current coronavirus situation, Creekside staff provides a new plate for every course, minimizes physical contact among attendees and staff, provides to-go boxes for anyone displaying symptoms, and ensures that every attendee washes their hands before coming to eat.

But according to Norton, the MLT senior center staff are preparing for the possibility of having to close the center to outside groups and functions such as the Mountlake Neighborhood Table.

“While the City of Mountlake Terrace is our landlord and they’ve always been wonderful to work with, we receive no city funding and still need to pay rent and utilities,” she explained.  We’re a small 501 (c) 3 organization, and the income from outside groups is vital to keeping us going.”

But Pastor Miller remains hopeful. “We will follow whatever direction is given by the MLT Senior Center,” he said. “Obviously our hope is that it won’t come to that point, but we would continue to look for ways of providing meals to those in need.”

Everyone involved in providing services to seniors and people with disabilities shares a commitment to help this vulnerable population stay healthy and weather the current coronavirus crisis, and look forward to resuming the full range of services when it passes.

“We’re aware that for many folks these services are important and make a critical difference in their lives,” said Fleming. “As soon as we can be open again, we will.”

— By Larry Vogel

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