The changing state of services to Chatham’s graying population

Meals on ‘wheels’

Posted 3/2/21

Editor’s note: This is a follow-up story to last week’s look at how Chatham Council on Aging Executive Director Dennis Streets and his staff have shifted their focus during the pandemic. This …

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The changing state of services to Chatham’s graying population

Meals on ‘wheels’

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Editor’s note: This is a follow-up story to last week’s look at how Chatham Council on Aging Executive Director Dennis Streets and his staff have shifted their focus during the pandemic. This week: high-priority deliverables.

One of the constant refrains from health officials throughout the pandemic is that older adults are more at risk of severe illness if infected with the coronavirus.

For the Chatham Council on Aging — a non-profit focused on supporting people aged 60 and older — that means it has had to reshape how it serves some of Chatham’s most vulnerable residents.

Dennis Streets, the organization’s executive director, outlined three things that have bubbled to the top in recent months: nutrition assistance, home care and social connectivity.

Prior to the COA centers in Siler City and Pittsboro closing their doors to the public in March to prevent the spread of the virus, Streets said one of the agency’s more popular programs was the serving of daily meals that would coincide with educational or recreational programming. Now, the centers partner with the Chatham Transit Network to distribute meals to homes across the county.

In addition to that, the COA freezes leftover meals and keeps some shelf stable options on tap. These are available for seniors who live in remote parts of Chatham County typically out of the way for the main meal delivery routes and are picked up by either family members or friends of the person in need, Streets said.

It’s been a bit of a piecemeal and evolving process just getting the meals where they need to go. Streets said the COA was previously relying on UNC nursing students whose studies had been disrupted by the pandemic, along with deputies from the sheriff’s office and Chatham County Public Health Department staff.

But as the demand on public health workers and county officials started to increase, it became clear to Streets the COA couldn’t rely on its usual crop of volunteers.

“Because most of our volunteers are seniors themselves, and we were reluctant to put them in harm’s way,” Streets said. “We also wanted to protect recipients of the meals, so we used community partners.”

Streets said the pivot to Chatham Transit also allows for seniors to use the transport service to do things like visit grocery stores, go to hair appointments and complete other activities deemed safe by health officials.

And food isn’t the only thing on the delivery list. Streets said the COA is dropping off items like reading materials, pet food and incontinence supplies. He also mentioned that meal deliveries were part of the COA’s outreach program before the pandemic, but have just become one of the primary models it’s using to reach seniors now. He ballparked that the non-profit is reaching more than 400 people on a weekly basis with its services.

Home care

Another challenge seniors are facing is how to best approach services that offer home care, especially homebound members of the community who struggle with daily activities within their own residence. The COA acts as a bridge for home care services and contracts with seven state licensed home care agencies, Streets said, which can provide things like baths and food preparation.

But the pandemic has also changed the flow of who can enter the home.

“What we were seeing early on (in the pandemic) is some of the people who were needing the care became reluctant,” he said. “They said, ‘I’m not comfortable having somebody from the outside come in who’s not sure what their exposure has been to COVID-19.’”

He added that reluctance may have been shared with family members, some of whom now find themselves caring for loved ones.

So the COA decided to take a different approach to the respite services it already provided. The council gave the Triangle J Council of Governments funding to administer a consumer directed program that pays family members or a trusted source to provide home care. It gives those who need care more options to choose what it looks like.

Bridging the social divide

The feeling of isolation is another thing the COA is combating among seniors. Streets said he sees a lot of things creating a digital divide among older adults.

“It’s because of where people live and whether or not they have internet access,” Streets said. “But even more than that, a lot of folks do not have a cell phone. They do not have a tablet, they do not have a laptop or they do not have experience using them. They may not be able to afford these things.”

Something that has been keeping the COA in touch with seniors is the Friendly Phone Caller Program, which the non-profit uses to check in on seniors, promote resource services and collect information. Streets said one thing the COA found is that many participants don’t have email access, so as social programming shifted from in-person to virtual it became critical to have an option for those without a screen in their hands.

“There’s a divide among those who have wherewithal and means to participate in those (events) and those that do not,” Streets said. “So we really try to make sure that when we’ve set something up for Zoom or YouTube, we’ve also provided a way for them to participate — even if it’s not as rich visually — as much as they could by phone.”

Phone calls have also been instrumental in getting isolated seniors information about eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine. The COA created a form through Google that once filled out provides contact information for a vaccine candidate to Chatham public health, Streets said. He added the COA is committed to making sure connections are legitimately being made for whoever calls the non-profit with questions, and people aren’t just being given a phone number for another service without any follow-up.

That data is proving to be a valuable tool in crafting an equitable response to the pandemic.

Streets said sharing COA data with the Chatham health department is helping make connections to historically underserved communities.

“We serve a proportionally large population in a lot of our services who are minorities,” Streets said. “So we wanted to have that direct, real time engagement with public health to provide the contact information, and then checking back frequently with public health and say ‘Do you need us to reach out?’”

For nearly a year, Streets has held conference calls every Friday morning to address community concerns regarding the pandemic; last week happened to be his 51st call. The featured speaker on that call was Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek, who laid out part of North Carolina’s plans to reach communities who have historically been left out of satisfactory healthcare.

“It’s about speed and equity,” Zelek said during the phone conference. “So it’s about giving out the vaccine, but it’s not just about giving out the vaccine. It’s about getting out the vaccine to the full Chatham community, including historically marginalized populations.”

For Streets, he sees that commitment to the community as holding more weight than ever.

“As a Council on Aging in our 46th year, our mission has essentially been the same since our beginning, which is keeping people living safely in the community for as long as possible,” Streets said. “There’s never been a more important time for that then now.”

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