Minnesota groups help seniors through isolation

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — The coronavirus pandemic has limited the mobility of independent older adults in Central Minnesota, so they’re showing up online for yoga classes and lectures.

And they’re tapping into meal programs at much higher rates than before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Older adults are really resilient,” said Laura Hood, aging services director for the city of St. Cloud. “They’ve been through wars. They’ve supported communities. They’ve built communities.”

And the community programs that serve seniors adjusted quickly to do so after Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order and other precautions meant to limit spread of the virus.

Staff at the Whitney Senior Center have been able to connect with 70 percent of members electronically, Hood said. And those who are not available online get phone calls.

“We’re doing personal phone calls to them, checking in,” Hood told the St. Cloud Times. “We’re tracking anyone who may be struggling.”

Every week, the Whitney Senior Center emails a newsletter with resources, including links to live, interactive exercise classes and lectures.

“We offer so many things in person; it’s been very hard for people,” Hood said. “We’ve done a lot of research to make this as simple as possible.”

Staff provide some technical support and schedule programs that allow for group engagement, include exercise and cover other topics such as container gardens and mindfulness.

‘Moving heaven and earth’

Communal dining is on hold for now, but members can stop by the center at lunchtime Mondays through Wednesdays and pick up a stack of frozen meals.

That scene is playing out in other parts of Central Minnesota.

Catholic Charities has seen a huge jump in demand, said Barb Willard, senior dining program manager. She expects to provide 78,000 meals in April through food shelves, Meals on Wheels and frozen meals, which used to be served in communal dining rooms.

Willard estimates the number of people served has doubled since the pandemic began.

Usually the meals go out every two weeks, she said. “If we need to get them food, we’re moving heaven and earth to get them food now so they don’t have to wait for the distribution.”

Catholic Charities distributes through the Whitney Senior Center and throughout a nine-county area from Stearns to Pine counties. There are seven kitchens and 49 sites in that area, Willard said.

People have to register to get the food and can collect packs of 10, 20 or 30 meals at a time. Those who are food insecure now have permission to collect a total of 60 meals a month, double the previous limit.

Paid staff work in the kitchens, and volunteers deliver and hand out the food. If staff members don’t feel well, they don’t come in, Willard said.

Checking in

The volunteers used to go into homes of the Meals on Wheels clients and do a wellness check, Willard said. Now they put food on the porch and step back 10 feet. And the administrative staff have started calling clients to check in.

“I’ve just been amazed at how everybody has stepped up to the plate,” Willard said.

But staff and volunteers miss the close contact with their clients.

“They say things like, ‘It’s so heart wrenching for me as we do these drive-by distributions to not give them a hug or spend time with them,’” she said.

Just as the demand for meals and services for older adults has ramped up during the pandemic, so have the offers to help, said Lori Vrolson, executive director of the Central Minnesota Council on Aging.

“It’s been inspiring how many community members are willing to step up,” Vrolson said.

The Central Minnesota Council on Aging distributes federal money to programs that serve older adults, and those programs have adjusted to keep clients and volunteers safe.

One program used to send volunteers grocery shopping with a senior; now the volunteers just “shop and drop,” Vrolson said.

The organization also takes local calls to the state’s Senior LinkAge Line to connect seniors with services. Staff know which programs are halted, altered or still up and running.

Just like the Whitney Senior Center and Catholic Charities, other groups are reaching out to their older clients to check in.

Vrolson has heard that people appreciate those calls. It’s a chance to check in and a chance to connect. Plus it can help alleviate anxiety, Vrolson said.

“If you know an older adult, just reach out and give them a phone call,” Vrolson said. “It makes a difference.”

By Kerry Minor

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