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Covid-19: Senior citizens at risk of food shortages and isolation

Tuesday, April 7, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

With Covid-19 upending daily life, many senior citizens in Central Texas are finding their access to food limited and their social isolation increased.

“Food became the overall concern for everybody,” Patty Bordie, director of the CAPCOG Area Agency on Aging, told the Austin Monitor. “There’s a huge need right now because people don’t know how long it’s going to go on.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen similarly listed food access as No. 1 on the list of needs she has heard from seniors in her district. She told the Monitor that the combination of the shelter-in-place order, mobility limitations and seniors’ higher risk factor for contracting the virus have compounded to make access to sustenance a pressing concern for older adults.

Services like Meals on Wheels Central Texas, which distributes food to homebound older adults, and the Food Bank of Central Texas have been working to fill the gap but are limited by social distancing rules and a constricted food supply chain.

Paul Gaither, marketing and communications director with the Central Texas Food Bank, told the Monitor,“We’re having to purchase lots of things. The supply chain is tight for everybody.” Typically, he says the food bank receives large institutional donations from supermarkets, but those donations have dwindled in recent weeks. At the same time, demand has risen between 40 and 400 percent in the greater Austin area. Meals on Wheels reported an over 50 percent increase in requests for services.

Of particular concern for Gaither are seniors who use mobile food programs. One of those is the HOPE (Healthy Options Program for the Elderly) food pantry that is run in conjunction with Meals on Wheels Central Texas. The HOPE program has had to find alternate locations for its mobile pantries as many were located at city facilities that are now shuttered. This change can alter accessibility. To help supplement demand for mobile food services, the Central Texas Food Bank partnered with Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to repurpose the transit agency’s MetroAccess vehicles as mobile food delivery pantries for the clients who are already using those service routes.

At the same time, the type of nourishment that seniors need is changing to shelf-stable staples, due to the reduced interactions seniors are having with the services and volunteers.

Thad Rosenfeld, the vice president for communications with Meals on Wheels Central Texas, said the meal delivery protocols have changed significantly. “Unfortunately, we’ve had to go to an every-two-week meal delivery (schedule),” he said. “We’re doing that out of an abundance of caution.” To make sure clients are fed throughout this period, Meals on Wheels is offering frozen and shelf-stable options.

Food is not the only concern for vulnerable populations; without access to grocery stores or meal delivery volunteers, seniors are facing the threat of social isolation. “The sad fact of the matter is the daily well checks have gone away. We’ve replaced them with frequent phone calls from our client services department,” said Rosenfeld, adding, “We’re the first to admit that can’t replace that human contact.”

Bordie explained that agencies interacting with aging populations are already seeing an increase in reports of mental health issues. She said agencies are using phone calls and teleconferencing technologies to try to close the gap that social isolation has carved.

To help combat isolation and ensure seniors have access to the necessary services, Council Member Kitchen is working to send postcards to elderly residents in her district “saying that we’re here to help them if they need it and they can give us a call if there is anything that they need.” On the postcards are numbers to connect seniors directly with the Council member as well as local services. The postcards will arrive within the next couple of days, according to Kitchen, at which point the District 5 office will follow up with individual phone calls.

Beyond this district-centric effort, the city of Austin is working to get seniors digital connections to services and Kitchen said there is an effort to provide protective equipment to personal care workers who go into people’s homes.

Both Bordie and Rosenfeld said that while there is an increase in need and the logistics of providing food has changed, there are still sufficient supplies, funding and volunteers to ensure that those populations in need of assistance are fed. The challenge, Bordie told the Monitor, is ensuring that those in need know where to access the help.

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