Older adults are most vulnerable to become seriously ill from COVID-19, so even as Western New York and other areas of the country begin to reopen, public health officials warn those over 65 should continue to limit their exposure. WBFO’s Older Adults Reporter Tom Dinki explores what local nonprofit organizations are doing to help seniors get their essentials without risking their health.
Ananda Etkin donned her face mask and shopped at the Tops in Williamsville on a recent Wednesday afternoon. She picked up Brussels sprouts, cereal, orange juice, milk, coffee and paper towels.
The Clarence Center Elementary School reading aide and mother of two high school students wasn’t shopping for herself. She shopped so that an older adult didn’t have to potentially be exposed to COVID-19.
“I feel comfortable enough going into grocery stores that I don't feel nervous and I know that there's people that are in need,” she said. “My dad is 78, so I would love it if I couldn't do it, if somebody else would step in and do it for him.”
One of the older adults she regularly shops for is Dorothy Klein, a 76-year-old Clarence Center resident who is blind and lives alone.
“She is an angel. I give her the list. She does the shopping. When she comes back she brings my groceries up,” Klein said.
Etkin and Klein connected through Hearts and Hands, an Amherst-based volunteer organization that helps about 800 older adults and those with disabilities get to places like the grocery store and doctor’s appointments.
It recently expanded to the city of Buffalo and all of Erie County, thanks to a $35,000 grant from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York, as well as a partnership with Erie County Senior Services and other organizations.
“I think everyone recognizes the importance of keeping our seniors home, getting past this difficult situation, but also making sure they have what they need and don't have anxiety about, ‘How am I going to eat?’” said Heidi Nicklaus Lefebvre, Hearts and Hands’ faith outreach manager and Buffalo coordinator. “It's just so important that they have proper nutrition, that they eat well, and they feel good about being home.”
Nonprofits like Hearts and Hands are trying to fill gaps to make sure seniors don’t have to leave the house to eat during the COVID-19 crisis. Even as Western New York and other areas of the country begin to reopen, the White House's “Opening Up America Again” guidelines say older adults and those with underlying health conditions should continue to shelter in place during phases 1 and 2.
Meals on Wheels for Western New York has also expanded since the pandemic began. It’s taken on an additional 1,400 clients since Erie County had to stop its congregate senior dining program in March. It’s now delivering approximately 30,100 meals per week, a 32% increase from its pre-pandemic numbers.
Anne McKenna, Meals on Wheels for WNY chief communications officer, credited the additional volunteers who’ve offered their help.
“It's a lot of people who are either not working right now or are working from home and have the luxury of being able to leave the house in the middle of the day at lunchtime to go out and deliver meals to our neighbors in need,” she said. “We've had all kinds of people across the board. We have just been so blessed with the volunteers who have come out to support us during this time.”
As much as nonprofits are trying to increase their efforts during the pandemic, older adults and those with disabilities faced barriers getting to places like the grocery store and doctor’s office even before COVID-19, said Brittany Perez.
Perez is the livability program officer for LISC Western New York. She was recently the director of outreach for the University at Buffalo’s IDEA Center, which partnered on the Hearts and Hands expansion.
She noted a report last year by the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, which found 60% of the Erie-Niagara region is likely to have some kind of special transportation need, whether it be because of age, disability or income.
With older adults being New York’s fastest growing age demographic, Perez said those needs will only increase, even after the pandemic is over. And new transportation and delivery efforts will be important even after the pandemic is over.
“There are alternative ways that we might be to utilize our resources that we should consider moving forward,” she said, “and be cautious of just going back to the old ways of doing things.”
Klein hopes Hearts and Hands can continue picking up her groceries after the crisis ends.
The service is crucial for her, even beyond the risk of COVID-19. Her regular aide service that used to shop for her was discontinued. She can’t use Instacart either, since it doesn’t accept her food stamps.
“I believe they're going to continue to help me. And it certainly is a blessing to me,” she said.
For her volunteer, Etkin, delivering groceries has been somewhat therapeutic.
“I was feeling depressed and lonely and anxious about everything that's going on in the world right now,” she said. “So being able to take my eyes off myself and look at somebody else and their need helped me deal with it.”