Elderly residents are among the most at-risk population for infection by the coronavirus outbreak, but now they are also at risk of losing critical services as cities and towns around the state shut down feeding programs, activity centers and other care-giving operations.
More than 60,000 older adults in Massachusetts rely on meals served at their local councils on aging or delivered to their homes through government-funded programs like Meals on Wheels.
But since Friday, dozens of senior centers in the state have stopped serving meals, along with ending other group activities as agencies weigh the risks of disease transmission between workers and volunteers and elder residents both at home and inside centers where seniors gather.
Lisa Gurgone, the head of Mass Home Care — a nonprofit that represents local senior centers and agencies providing home-based care for the elderly — said she is concerned about shortages of workers who might get sick or are now fearful about entering clients’ homes.
“If shortages of workers occur, what is our plan for taking care of those people? How do we serve the most high-risk people?” she said. “If we can't deliver meals to all 60,000 people, how do we make sure that the most the ones at the highest risk do get food?”
The decision over the weekend by Gov. Charlie Baker to close schools statewide for several weeks will also affect the workforce that elder service agencies depend for food delivery and all home-based care, said Gurgone.
“The direct-care workforce, a majority are women, and a lot of them are women with children,” she said. “With school closings, these workers can't get to work. That will impact our ability to serve people, as well.”
But the problem is not just whether caregivers will stop working because of the demands at home. Some caregivers might also be fearful of contracting coronavirus while helping a client. Through the state’s home care program, more than 60,000 older adults receive help with tasks like personal care and hygiene, laundry and transportation.
Last week, the state’s Office of Elder Affairs issued new guidelines requiring caregivers to continue serving homebound elders who have coronavirus symptoms such as a fever, a cough, shortness of breath or a sore throat. But if a client shows these symptoms and has recently been exposed to COVID-19, homecare agencies have the option of calling emergency responders for clients who need immediate care.
Valerie Novak, a disability expert at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, in Washington, D.C., said this situation didn’t have to happen.
“Not being prepared, not adequately planning for these situations causes the kind of breakdowns we're seeing now that put the people that are already at higher risk even more at risk because they can't access certain social supports that they might rely on for their daily living,” she said.
And it’s not just the elderly facing a breakdown of social support in this crisis, said Novak, pointing to parents that don’t have access to childcare now that schools are closed and low-income families who need food and medicine.
Senior centers in Massachusetts that have to shut their doors are working hard to make sure that their elder residents aren’t abandoned. The Newburyport Council on Aging has closed its senior center to group activities but is keeping its Meals on Wheels program running, said council director Roseann Robillard, council director.
“For many of the people who get Meals on Wheels, their driver is the only person who checks on them all day long. It's a very, very important service, and we don't want anything to interrupt that,” she said. “Not only is it a delivery of food, it's also an informal health and safety check. So, we want to make sure that recipient is well enough and able to open the door and receive the meal.”
But Gurgone, at Mass Home Care, raises another concern as coronavirus fears infect the service system: sites that cook food for Meals on Wheels may start to close down.
“Our agencies are scrambling to find other sites to make those meals,” she said. “If that's not possible, can we find frozen meals to provide or shelf stable meals if this gets more challenging? That's, a very big issue for us.”