While everyone is at risk in this pandemic, seniors are getting hit especially hard by both the virus and the resulting shutdowns.
Not only do seniors face the most danger of becoming severely ill from the coronavirus, they are already at heightened risk for financial and food insecurity, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. In addition to government efforts, social service organizations across the state have scrambled to provide care for seniors while keeping them safe and healthy.
Paula Basta, director of the Illinois Department on Aging, says her agency has put concerns about isolation and hunger front and center in their response to the pandemic. “Seniors have the possibility of being more isolated now than ever, and so what we want to make sure people know is they’re not alone,” she said. “We also know that food insecurity is a huge issue.”
Basta reports that after closing adult day centers and congregant dining sites, area agencies have delivered 45,000 meals a day to Illinois seniors during the shutdown.
Theresa Nihill, chief operating officer of the social service organization Metropolitan Family Services, agrees that social distancing has compounded the loneliness, isolation and anxiety that many seniors were already experiencing. “We’re seeing a lot of seniors who are lonely because they can’t see family,” Nihill said. “Seniors who are anxious because they don’t know when this is going to end.”
Nihill says her agency has tried to be flexible in continuing things like mental health services while maintaining social distance. “If we’re trying to provide support to them [remotely], I think for many of them it doesn’t have the same feel to them as talking face to face, especially some of them who are getting psychiatric services,” she said. “We’re trying to talk with them to make sure they stay healthy and just to help process their feelings about what’s going on. Many of those issues are just exacerbated because seniors already often struggled with these things.”
In Chinatown, Chinese American Service League CEO Paul Luu says his organization has been preparing for the possibility of a coronavirus pandemic when they first heard of its appearance in China. “We suspected that if it’s in Chicago, it’s in Chinatown. We were already prepared with 10,000 masks, and we’ve had thousands more masks donated to us, we’ve had young professionals donate money,” he said.
In addition to the concerns of living in close quarters during a pandemic – “you get a couple of cases in a building where you have a hundred, two hundred seniors, it’s terrifying” – Luu says he also sees food insecurity in the community CASL serves. “We serve over 700 seniors in Chinatown. Our first-floor kitchen provides three meals a day – we prep culturally sensitive meals and drop them off every day at noon.”
When Luu heard that non-CASL seniors in the community were also struggling with food insecurity, he called upon his organization to step in and help. “After two days of figuring how we can do that, we’re going to serve [another] 300 seniors three meals,” he said. “So the last week and a half, I had to raise money and we had to mobilize an additional kitchen. We were able to hire Chinese residents who live in the community to cook for us. Many of the seniors can’t cook, so for us to provide culturally sensitive, nutritious meals, it’s very big for them.”
Luu says he also sees the strain of the shutdown showing among CASL’s seniors. “What we’re also worried about is their mental health. The children can’t come to visit them. That healing connection is so important to our seniors, when they don’t have that, it takes a toll on their mental health,” he said. “So that’s why having WeChat, the daily phone calls, the voice on the other end saying ‘if you need me, call me anytime,’ that lifeline is so important.”
Basta encourages any senior looking for services like meal delivery or mental health assistance to call the state hotline at 800-252-8966. They can also contact the Department of Family and Support Services hotline at 312-743-0300.
And simple neighborly acts can go a long way too, says Nihill. “If you happen to know where seniors live, you can check in – just knock on their door and step back for social distancing, and just check in on them so they know they’re not forgotten and they’re an important part of the community,” Nihill said. “All of us need to take some initiative to check on people. It really is on all of us and our community to make sure that happens.”