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Services change rapidly to protect seniors from COVID-19

Seniors are among those most at risk from COVID-19. But social services are rapidly changing to help this vulnerable community. NewsHour Weekend’s Molly Enking visited Citymeals on Wheels, the largest delivery program of senior meals in the U.S., and a local senior center in New York City that closed its doors but is still finding ways to serve its community.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As we continue to learn more about the novel coronavirus, one thing we do know is that for seniors and those with existing medical issues, the disease caused by the virus is particularly deadly. Newshour Weekend Producer Molly Enking reports on how organizations that support New York City's seniors are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Extra care was given to distancing measures while reporting this story.

  • Molly Enking:

    At the 25,000 square foot Citymeals on Wheels distribution center in the Bronx, dozens of volunteers and staff are packaging emergency meals. From here they'll be delivered to home-bound seniors.

    This is the largest meal delivery organization in the country. It's always busy, but the danger COVID-19 poses to older people is possibly the biggest challenge it's ever faced, according to executive director Beth Shapiro.

  • Beth Shapiro:

    The people we're serving are the most vulnerable. They're vulnerable all the time. But with COVID-19, they are most susceptible. They are isolated and alone. And we need to make sure they're getting the nutrition that they need at this time.

  • Molly Enking:

    Citymeals on Wheels is New York City's designated emergency responder for seniors. That means when a disaster hits, like a hurricane, or a blizzard, Citymeals is responsible for feeding the homebound elderly. In the last few weeks, it has dramatically ramped up the amount of food that it's distributing.

  • Beth Shapiro:

    In a given year, we're delivering 2 million meals. In just the last two weeks or so, we've done 250,000 meals from here.

  • Molly Enking:

    To meet demand, Shapiro says the nonprofit has doubled its warehouse staff and arranged to buy extra food. But protecting seniors and workers from exposure to the coronavirus has added challenges. Everyone wears gloves while packing the food, but the organization has run out of masks, leaving workers to either bring their own or go without.

  • Beth Shapiro:

    We are making sure our volunteers and staff are following CDC guidelines, you know, keeping a safe distance, wearing gloves, et cetera. Of course, nobody here if they're not feeling well. We're just making sure we do everything we can to ensure the safety of staff, volunteers, and of course those who are delivering meals to.

  • Molly Enking:

    Citymeals has also changed how it interacts with its clients: no more in-person contact. Vivienne O'Neill is the group's volunteer director.

  • Vivienne O’Neill:

    Volunteers not only deliver meals and knock on the door, they see the seniors, it's sort of like a wellness check in, you know, to see them hand the food over to them. But because of all of this, you know, COVID 19, they're not seeing the senior, but they're hearing the senior because they're talking to them behind the door.

  • Harriet Ross (on phone):

    Hello?

  • Haeva Lawrence-Challenger:

    Hi Miss Ross, how are you?

  • Molly Enking:

    Besides delivering food, Citymeals has a program where volunteers visit vulnerable seniors. Now, those visits are done over the phone. Haeva Lawrence-Challenger has been meeting with 88-year old Harriet Ross for years.

  • Harriet Ross (on phone):

    Everything is quiet.

  • Haeva Lawrence-Challenger:

    Ok. Are you worried when it's quiet?

  • Harriet Ross (on phone):

    I hate to be alone.

  • Molly Enking:

    Social isolation is already a problem for millions of elderly Americans. The pandemic has made things exponentially worse, says NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

  • Eric Klinenberg:

    We now face a risk that everyone who is older and alone will get isolated. That will obviously protect them in some ways, but it will also compound their stress and anxiety.

  • Molly Enking:

    Klinenberg, who has written extensively about loneliness and aging, says the effects of isolation can directly impact a person's health.

  • Eric Klinenberg:

    If you're old and isolated, and especially if you get that feeling of loneliness, that compounds the experience of anxiety, of stress that can make you feel lethargic, make you give up hope, and you get into this vicious cycle where the stress makes you more vulnerable to an illness like COVID-19.

  • Molly Enking:

    Senior centers exist to help combat isolation among older Americans. but many have had to close their doors. including this one in Forest Hills, Queens. There's usually a daily group meal in the gym. Now, food is being prepared as to-go lunches, individually packed meals that seniors can call ahead to reserve.

  • Ozzie Sevilla:

    Morning, morning, morning..

  • Molly Enking:

    Ozzie Sevilla walked the two blocks from his apartment to pick up lunch. He says it's an essential service right now.

  • Ozzie Sevilla:

    It frees me up from going to the grocery store. The supermarket shelves are empty anyway, so it's all good. It takes me out of the house for a little walk and I go back in there and enjoy my lunch.

  • Molly Enking:

    Queens Community House runs this senior center and four others. Ben Thomases is the executive director.

  • Ben Thomases:

    Queen Community House has always taken the position that our society needs to do much, much more to protect vulnerable people even in ordinary circumstances.

  • Molly Enking:

    He says the organization has had to adapt quickly and has already transitioned its english- as-a-second-language classes to online only.

  • ESL Class:

    What's the day? Wednesday.

  • Ben Thomases:

    Those classes are going great. I mean, you can see that the students are engaged and they're learning. And I am expecting that over time we'll also have more, more virtual programing for our seniors. A lot of our seniors, who use our senior centers are pretty tech savvy. If we can do, you know, book groups or creative writing classes or things like that over virtually, I think it'll, it'll help a lot.

  • Molly Enking:

    But service providers and experts acknowledge that this is likely only the beginning of what could be a long period of social isolation.

  • Eric Klinenberg:

    I'm worried about the problems from isolation compounding, of people becoming more isolated and more stressed and anxious over time. I suppose it's also possible that we will learn to adapt and develop some new skills for making contact in the way that we can. A lot of people are starting to use digital technology. Here we are having this interview on Zoom. But we are entering into a period where there's going to be, you know, real social pain. We are a social species. And our impulse when someone is sick is to reach out and hug them and take care of them. And we want to do that right now. But we have a very clear message, it's just not the right thing to do. So we're going to have to change.

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