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Age of Coronavirus: Agencies Scramble to Serve Seniors Delivering Food and Companionship Becomes Much Harder

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Above image credit: Denise Barrett hands over a hot lunch, while James Singleton holds the door at the Don Bosco Senior Center. (Barbara Shelly | Flatland)
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6 minute read

Staffers at the Don Bosco Senior Center delivered the bad news on a Friday, as their guests were polishing off a lunch of catfish, coleslaw and sauteed spinach.

Due to precautions necessitated by the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the center in Kansas City’s Columbus Park neighborhood was closing its doors for the foreseeable future.

No more hot meals with friends. No zumba classes, bingo games, Bible study or art lessons.

Interpreters repeated the dismal news in Spanish and Vietnamese. The room fell silent as older people of multiple nationalities dealt with the reality that the world as they have known it was about to change. The senior center is their community; its staff and patrons their family. 

“These people depend on us, but they know what’s going on and they understand the risk,” said Anne Miller, senior center director.

Even as they were informing their guests, Miller and her staff were working out contingency plans to get nutritious meals into the hands of the people who are most at risk of falling seriously or fatally ill should they contract the coronavirus. 

Similar pivots were taking place in offices and community centers around the area. While hundreds of homebound seniors already access meal delivery programs, many more have suddenly become in need of those services. Group meals and buffets have closed down. Elderly residents are being told to stay home and avoid even the grocery store.

“We are gearing up for expanded capacity,” said James Stowe, director of aging and adult services at the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), which funds and coordinates multiple senior meal programs in Jackson, Clay, Platte, Cass and Ray counties. “We are under extreme pressure, but who isn’t at the moment?”

Beginning March 16, Don Bosco began packaging the hot lunches normally served in the senior center. The center already has a robust homebound meal delivery program, so some of the regular guests were added to those routes.

Other meals were handed to guests who made their way to the center on foot or in their vehicles. They couldn’t enter the building, but a hot lunch of rice, Swedish meatballs, cooked cabbage and tomatoes was packed and waiting for them, along with the friendly faces of Denise Barrett and James Singleton.

Barrett is the activities coordinator at Don Bosco. Singleton is a long-time volunteer. They sat on benches in the entranceway, checking off names as people arrived.

More than 50 seniors stopped by for lunches the first day, and as the week moved on the numbers picked up. These are people who have lived long and eventful lives. Some fought in wars. Many moved to Kansas City from other lands. They worked hard, raised families and never quite seized the retirement security that is supposed to be part of the American dream.

“The majority of our people are low income,” Miller said. “They struggle to keep their utilities on.”

The center had announced it would hand out lunches from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., but on Wednesday, when a reporter visited the site, the first clients arrived 15 minutes early.

Singleton and Barrett hustled to get to them before they exited their vehicles or approached the front door. With gloved hands and outstretched arms, they handed over the lunches wrapped in plastic bags. They said a quick word of greeting and quickly backed off.

A sign at Don Bosco Senior Center urges clients to stay in their cars.
A sign at Don Bosco Senior Center urges clients to stay in their cars. (Barbara Shelly | Flatland)

The clients, said Miller, are “thankful for the meal and they’re thankful to see a friendly face.”

But the new hand-off system presents some challenges.

First of all, it lacks a funding source at the moment. MARC — a pipeline for federal Older American Act funding — partially reimburses Don Bosco and other agencies for meals they deliver to qualified seniors and for lunches they serve in congregate settings. But the shutdown of the community centers has scrambled the funding formulas.

Part of the holdup involves simply working through the federal and state bureaucracies that must be navigated before money gets to the local level. 

Beyond that, Stowe said MARC would be more comfortable if its agencies transitioned to home delivery, as senior citizens are being encouraged not to go out. But more home delivery requires extra staff or volunteers, and that’s a problem too.

Anne Miller, director of the Don Bosco Center in Columbus Park.
These are busy days for Anne Miller, director of the Don Bosco Center in Columbus Park. (Barbara Shelly | Flatland)

Miller said her program is fortunate to have loyal donors and philanthropic partners in Kansas City. Their support provides some flexibility. “We’re moving over here whether MARC is going to pay us or not,” she said.

By the end of last week, Don Bosco was serving 475 hot lunches a day — with about $800 a day coming out of its own funds. 

Its kitchen was also supplying meals to three other hot lunch programs in the area, which had found funding sources. 

In Johnson County, Area Agency on Aging Director Don Goodman said community centers that serve hot lunches to seniors have closed and the ranks of volunteers who serve home-delivered meals are beginning to thin.

Beginning this week, Johnson County will cease its weekday hot meal delivery and transition to a once-a-week delivery of frozen meals and shelf-stable packages — non-perishable items that will keep for a period of time.

The county currently serves nearly 575 seniors, and it is receiving calls daily from older people who are newly homebound and frightened, Goodman said. Many of the volunteers who deliver their meals are senior citizens also.

“We’re asking for more and more during a really scary time,” Goodman said. “I’ve been impressed at just how great the volunteers and staff have been about hanging in there.”

While once-a-week delivery is more efficient, it doesn’t enable the daily connection between homebound seniors and volunteers that has proved nourishing and sometimes lifesaving. It’s not uncommon for a volunteer to knock on a door to deliver a meal and find that their client has fallen or is otherwise in distress.

Johnson County will make extra efforts to contact at-risk older clients, Goodman said.

Bobbie Lane, nutrition supervisor with the Wyandotte Area Agency on Aging, said the biggest change for her program is that deliverers aren’t going in homes and interacting with clients the way they did before.

“We’re basically knocking and leaving the meal and walking away,” she said. “That’s really for the safety of everybody.”

At Don Bosco, Miller said her staff isn’t willing to give up daily contact. Like other agencies, they tried frozen meals a few years ago, and considered the experiment a bust.

“We are dedicated to checking in once a day,” she said. “We want to know that everyone is OK.”

Even the new curbside lunch program enables the staff to get a look at clients and hand them a roll of toilet paper or some other essential supply if they need it, Miller said.

On Wednesday, Jane and Alfonso Newton took three buses to get from their home in south Kansas City to the senior center in Columbus Park.

The center had been closed for less than a week, but Alfonso said he missed working out on the exercise equipment. Jane felt bereft without bingo and Bible study.

“I miss meeting with everybody,” she said, as she and Alfonso sat on a bench outside of the center and ate their lunches. “I’m expecting an Avon order from Joyce on Friday.”

The couple said they enjoyed just getting out of their apartment. It felt somehow normal.

 Jayne and Alfonso Newton took three buses to pick up their lunches at the Don Bosco Senior Center.
Jayne and Alfonso Newton took three buses to pick up their lunches at the Don Bosco Senior Center. (Barbara Shelly | Flatland)

But these are not normal times. At MARC, Stowe said the thought of senior citizens riding three buses each way to pick up lunch made him uncomfortable.

“Right now that’s not advised by any level of government,” he said.

Singleton, the volunteer, said he is disabled and doesn’t drive, so he takes two buses to get to the center. He enjoys helping out and being useful.

“I just take things as they come,” he said. “Stay strong.”

But by the end of last week, Don Bosco staff had reluctantly told Singleton that he, too, needed to stay home, for his own safety. 

They’ll find a way to provide him with a hot lunch. But the companionship and sense of purpose — so essential to the well-being of their older and disabled clients — will be harder to deliver. 

Flatland contributor Barbara Shelly is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.

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