Councils on Aging (COAs) Adapt in the Age of COVID-19

Retirement Daily Guest Contributor

By Marcia Mantell, RMA®

“Adaptation. That’s the new theme and necessary direction for Councils on Aging during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ellen Feinsand, Chairman of the Board, Acton, Massachusetts COA, shares in a recent interview. “COAs play a vital role in nearly every community. To continue delivering critical, and fun, services for our age 60-plus neighbors, everyone must get more flexible and bend. And, not just in the new outside yoga classes!”

Marcia Mantell

11,000 COAs Face a Global Pandemic

September is National Senior Center Month, a time to recognize the importance of serving the local retired community. COAs are usually chock-full of new programming and celebratory events. But this year, the party will look quite different.

There are some 11,000 COAs across the country that serve over 1 million retirees every day. COAs were among the first forced to close their doors as COVID-19 rapidly spread across the country. Their population is the most vulnerable to the ravages of this particular coronavirus.

The boards of directors and staff members had to make serious decisions about what, when, and how they could pivot to safely support the elders in their community. Then, the members started calling. They were ready to get on with things and wanted (and demanded!) support and services.

The COAs had to quickly adapt and the members had to become more flexible, embracing new routines and technology. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s happening.

COAs Offer a Tremendous Range of Activities and Services

If you had looked at your local COA’s January newsletter, you’d have seen an impressive list of activities offered by the Centers.

Kimberly Hobbs, a staff member at the Mt. Vernon, Washington, Senior Center, about an hour north of Seattle, enthusiastically listed dozens of activities her center hosted before COVID. “We were in business five days a week, filled with people taking classes and socializing from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Hobbs recalls. “Our activities were very popular and people loved exercise classes, line dancing, ukulele lessons, bridge, Tai Chi, and birdwatching. And, many people also used the Center for important health services such as footcare, PTSD groups for Veterans, and AA meetings,” she added.

Those age 60 and older rely on their local COA for so much more than exercise and crafting classes. Many establish daily and weekly routines that include stops at their COA. They connect with new people and reconnect with friends. Important information about topics critical for older Americans is shared through COAs, including Medicare info sessions, estate planning seminars, and current tax relief information for seniors.

Creativity, Flexibility, Adaptability Are Necessary Skills Today

It is remarkable to see the dramatic programming changes at COAs under COVID-19 restrictions. Looking at the Acton COA’s January 2020 newsletter, it included 16 pages of events and invitations to join in the fun. Surprisingly, the August 2020 newsletter, during a global pandemic, wasn’t a shorter version. Rather, it weighs in at a hefty 31 pages!

The team at the Acton Senior Center is going out of their way to creatively connect their members. Events and activities have transitioned to Zoom, YouTube, and local access TV. Plus, the newsletter has become more of a newspaper, providing important information about the goings on in and around town and how seniors can stay active in a time that has become so isolating.

During our phone conversation, Feinsand enthusiastically explained, “Today is a big day for us. We just held our first balance exercise class since March. Outside! In our parking lot!” There were some logistics, and of course, safety issues to work out, but August kicked off a few outdoor activities that were quickly embraced and over-subscribed.

Feinsand has also offered suggestions for more outdoor activities, including “Get Out!” This program, coordinated with the town’s recreation department, specifically identified walking trails appropriate for retirees. The trails are paved, include ADA parking areas, and are clearly marked for various skill levels. There are four options and seniors will be encouraged to walk-about all four this fall.

Improving Food Security

One of the most important, and most popular, offerings at most COAs is lunch. Most centers encourage gathering for meals in a central dining area. And, often, the local Meals on Wheels is coordinated at the local senior center.

The Mt. Vernon Senior Center closed in February. But both Hobbs and her sister, Kristl Hobbs, the director of the center, knew they had to figure out a way to keep the critical function of delivering meals going despite the virus.

“Our Meals on Wheels is volunteer-run. We serve 120 people per day,” Hobbs shared. “We have five or six volunteer drivers who still drop off meals with our seniors. And, we’ve got an amazing group of 65 volunteers who prepare and package meals and prepare frozen options that help our community members get through the weekend.”

And, the need is rising. “We are still getting some two to five call every day to sign up someone for meals on wheels delivery,” Hobbs mentioned.

Once the Acton COA closed, and in the spirit of adapting to the new environment, “Drive thru Brunch” got its start. Members loved this idea and came out in force. Donning masks, volunteers handed takeout boxes through the car windows and spent a few minutes saying hello. There are also daily “Grab and Go” lunches for members. And the COA is coordinating with the local high school where a volunteer staff prepares lunches daily for anyone in the community.

Wellness Checks Remain a Top Priority

From coast to coast, COAs remain ever vigilant in providing wellness checks. In the good old days of early 2020, wellness was largely self-sustaining. The seniors walked into their COA and connected with staff, friends, and anyone else there for a cup of coffee or to join an activity. But, once shuttered, how can a COA ensure the well-being of their community members?

“We’ve seen a gigantic hole now that we’re closed,” Hobbs continued. “Our seniors are calling the center frequently, just for someone to talk to. The COA is the life-line that provides social connections for so many in the community. The loss of the Center can be distressing for our older members.”

Today, Hobbs spends much of her time looking for and coordinating resources across the county. She’s assembling a bank of resources for members when they need to chat with a friendly voice or reach a mental health hotline. Her members also need information for local food banks and grocery delivery, and she’s anticipating that many will need tax help early next year.

Feinsand explained how the Acton COA is offering a once a week call to many of their members for “just a conversation.” These calls also serve as a wellness check-in. The members simply sign up for a call at a convenient time. As importantly, family members or concerned neighbors can request the COA to provide a phone check in.

Connecting the Generations

As senior centers adapt and shift their offerings, a new area is emerging: making connections across generations, in a virtual way.

One program that has grown in popularity since its inception in 2008, Sages and Seekers, has made the transition from one-on-one, in person sessions to Zoom video calls. The program helps combat ageism by pairing high school students with older members of their community. In Acton, the program continues during the pandemic, now called “Sages and Seekers, Quarantine Connection Series.”

Some of the most creative areas emerging have been the “teens teach tech” and “students reaching out to seniors.” With our lives being lived out in virtual media these days, it can be challenging for older Americans to understand rapidly changing technology solutions. The younger generations are stepping up in a big way to help seniors, and the COA’s are coordinating the connections.

In Acton, student volunteers help with Zoom and other tech issues over then phone, then use Zoom to get to know the senior they’ve been helping. They share stories, have a modern day “virtual pen pal,” and remove some of the isolation brought on by COVID-19. It’s not only older Americans who are feeling lonely and isolated. And, this screen connection can be a powerful tool for older and younger generations alike.

Boomers, Time to Engage with Your COA!

There’s no better time than National Senior Center Month to check out your local COA. Boomers, especially, can find great value in the offerings at their local COA. But the doors are usually open for anyone 50 and older.

It’s a simple google search: <Your town> Senior Center or <Your town> Council on Aging. Download the newsletter, or better yet, sign up for e-newsletter delivery.

Senior centers are so much more than a place to go. The boards of directors and the staff spend time aggregating important information for you and your retirement. They often find local volunteer projects to participate in, list resources that address particular aging issues, and host Medicare education sessions. Plus, many COAs have quickly adapted to an online world and their calendars of events are bursting at the seams and ready for you to check out.

And, there is always room for more. One of the most wonderful things about your local COA is that it’s yours. If you have a class you want to teach, or an activity you’d like to add to the calendar, or a new idea for how to get out during a pandemic, offer it up! There’s no need to sit back and hope to find something to do. Your local COA is ready and waiting for your ideas.

And, that’s reason to celebrate our local COAs during the month of September during COVID-19.

About the author: Marcia Mantell, RMA®, NSSA®

Marcia Mantell is the founder and president of Mantell Retirement Consulting, Inc., a retirement business development, marketing & communications, and education company supporting the financial services industry, advisors, and their clients. She is author of “What’s the Deal with Retirement Planning for Women?”, the newly published “What’s the Deal with Social Security for Women?” and blogs at BoomerRetirementBriefs.com.

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