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Senior Services COVID-19 Response Keeps Local Seniors Safe and Connected

Meals on Wheels Staff and Volunteers

Any other year, Brian Windrope's first day on the job would have been a lively one. Instead, it was marked by absence. Brian stepped into his role as the new Executive Director of Senior Services for South Sound on Monday, March 16th, 2020—a day seared into the memories of many in our region as the day everything shut down.

"It was eerie," Brian says, reflecting on what it was like that day in the Olympia Senior Center where his office is housed. "What brings life to any place is human vitality."

Usually, that vitality fills every corner of the Olympia Senior Center. You smell it drifting from the coffee bar and see it in the friendly competition of a game of cards or the collaborative work of a jigsaw puzzle. You hear it in the live bands, the laughter, the friendly conversation, and the clink of dishes as local seniors break bread together.

Since 1973, the mission of Senior Services for South Sound has been to improve the quality of life for people as they age. Compared to most other organizations serving seniors in WA state, Senior Services for South Sound is unusually robust in both the depth and breadth of their programs.

In a typical year, powered by a $2.7 million dollar budget and a 70-person staff, they offer a number of recreational activities—everything from trips abroad to classes and activities at the Olympia Senior Center and the Virgil Clarkson Lacey Senior Center. Their comprehensive services also include adult day programs, in-home care, basic needs and referrals, and transportation. They support senior nutrition programs across Thurston, Lewis, and Mason counties and serve fresh hot food in Lacey, in Olympia, and through partnerships with senior centers in smaller communities.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created a harsh new reality, however, and Senior Services for South Sound had to adapt. According to the Center for Disease Control, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, making seniors especially vulnerable. To keep everyone safe, Senior Services suspended all in-person activities. Without the revenue these programs generate, one of Brian Windrope's first acts in his new role was to sit down with outgoing Executive Director, Eileen McKenzieSullivan, and make heart wrenching decisions, including one to lay off a number of cherished people on staff. It was the only way to keep paying the bills, but it was devastating.

Meanwhile, local seniors still needed support. When possible, programs and activities moved online, including exercise sessions. Crucial programs such as Meals on Wheels and Care Connection had to go on. In fact, the Meals on Wheels Program expanded, growing from about 200 recipients to more than 400 almost overnight.

Knowing that many seniors were feeling isolated and afraid to leave their homes, Senior Services also increased outreach and delivery services. They launched "Do you know a senior in need?"—a creative new program designed to identify homebound seniors in Thurston and Mason counties and connect them with volunteers who could help with errands, do grocery shopping, and deliver prescriptions, puzzles, new books, pet supplies and other necessities. They added volunteer Pen Pal and Phone Pal programs to combat those feelings of isolation.

Thank You, Meals on Wheels Volunteers

Adapting services and shifting revenue was a challenge, but the community rallied and increased their support. "Sometimes you think the problems in the world are so overwhelming that you think it's out of your control and you can't contribute," says Mary, who supports Senior Services for South Sound financially, "but you really can contribute. The difference it might make in one person's life by alleviating their loneliness or their hunger...that gives me joy."

Maria, who invested her time and energy toward addressing that loneliness as a volunteer Phone Pal, puts it this way: "We find our family where we need to. We need to take care of whoever these people are. I think human beings are best when we're taking care of other people." She found that her check-in phone calls meant a lot to seniors who were missing in-person connections. No one hung up. Everyone needed to talk.

In addition to donors and volunteers, partner organizations stepped up their support of Senior Services as well. Kaiser Permanente donated health and wellness bags for Meals on Wheels clients, and their staff sent two boxes filled to the brim with hand-written cards for local seniors. "They told stories about their own parents and grandparents and made care packages that we could hand out," Brian says. "It was beautiful."

The United Way and the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound also deepened their support, coordinating to meet critical needs and providing additional funding, including extra for Meals on Wheels and a $6,000 Thurston County COVID-19 Response Fund grant to help launch the new "Do you know a senior in need?" program. "I know I can pick up the phone and call the Community Foundation and they'll take our call," Brain says. "Being new to Olympia, I've been incredibly impressed with the generosity and sense of togetherness I've encountered in the South Sound. This community is strong because of that and only because of that."

That generosity and sense of togetherness has had a significant—in some cases, a lifesaving—impact. When "Do you know a senior in need?" Program Manager Sky Myers, received a call from a neighbor one month into the lockdown, for example, she had no idea how critical her next steps would be. The call had come from a neighbor who was concerned that an elderly woman might be in distress. When Sky followed up, she learned the woman was completely out of food and flailing.

Just before lockdown, the woman had received a box of food from her church, which was meant to help her get through the weekend. She had stretched that one box a full month. She was in so much pain, she was taking sleeping pills just to sleep through the hunger. Sky swung into action, immediately gathering food from the Senior Center kitchen and driving to the woman's home to assist her. There, she found the woman in that fragile state of being that anyone who works with seniors recognizes as a dangerous tipping point between life and death. Now, signed up for Meals on Wheels and receiving regular calls to check in, this elder is no longer isolated. She is regaining her weight and recovering her vitality.

Brian Windrope

According to Brian Windrope, this story exemplifies the challenge our seniors are facing. More vulnerable than anyone to a very real and potentially deadly virus, they're justifiably afraid and often alone. "It's easy to look and see despair and have every reason to feel concern," he says. "And at the same time, we feel proud of how our community has responded. Senior Services is, at its heart, a partnership organization. There is a sense of community. We are many individuals who work together to serve one mission."

For local seniors whose quality of life has been improved by Senior Services, that mission evokes a deep sense of gratitude. "I sit down to eat when it's time and I cry. I mean, I actually close my eyes and I—thank you, Lord, for helping me," says Rose, who participates in the Meals on Wheels Program. "Everything I get is just a blessing. I am very blessed and I'm not just saying that to be nice. I cry. I'm so thankful."