Commentary: In a post-COVID world, what’s to become of our seniors?

Valery Moreno delivers meals for Meals on Wheels Orange County to Lillian Modzeleski on March 3.
Valery Moreno with Above All Catering, delivers meals for Meals on Wheels Orange County to Lillian Modzeleski of Costa Mesa on March 3.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

To put it bluntly, a year ago this month, Orange County seniors became “ground zero” of the coronavirus crisis.

A that time, life was turned upside down for our county’s older residents. Not only were COVID-19 deaths nationwide mostly among the older and vulnerable, but local support systems in place for seniors ceased to exist. Meals on Wheels Orange County programs such as hot lunch cafés at senior centers, home visits by volunteers and adult day care centers instantly shut down.

Older adults in O.C. were now homebound, even if they were previously active. And they were panicked — scared to go out of their homes — and when they did venture out to the store for essentials, they found store shelves bare.

So a year later, what is the new reality for our older citizens? The number of seniors in the county is projected to nearly double in the next 20 years, when one in four residents will be 65 or older.

Many will remain homebound. While younger seniors will return to active social lives, it will be much different for many older seniors. We’re seeing some indications of continued fear — even with the vaccines — due to variants and other factors.

More seniors will choose to “age in place.” Remaining at home was already a pre-pandemic trend, but there will be steady, increased demand for more home- and community-based services.

Isolation and loneliness will increase. Prior to COVID-19, approximately 25% of older adults were socially isolated, and this number is growing. After months of sitting at home, many are now relying on walkers and wheelchairs, and we and our partners have observed cognitive deterioration, greater sadness and depression. Other seniors have rapidly deteriorated following the death of a spouse.

And yet there is hope. As a society, we can address these issues.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has expanded its lung cancer screening guidelines for smokers.

First, we must continue to expand safety-net services like those we provide at Meals on Wheels O.C. to fight food insecurity. To put this in perspective, we have seen a 600% increase in “grab and go” meals we are serving through senior centers, and we’ve increased the number receiving traditional home-delivered meals by 40%. The number of older adults living below the poverty level is growing, and these individuals will rely on us long past the pandemic.

Second, there is a growing need to provide social connections and supports for seniors. For all the reasons shared above, many older adults will remain homebound and participation at senior and adult day care centers will be slow to return. This means they will need food, visitation, physical therapy, access to senior-friendly technology and more.

For our part, Meals on Wheels O.C. makes visits and check-ins part of our delivered meals program — a meal and a visit, coupled with case management services. We have expanded our services to include telehealth calls, along with guidance and a listening ear for caregivers.

But we all must do more. A truly healthy society values its older people just as much as it values its children.

The open hearts and generosity of others have been a blessing to so many during this time. We must continue to reach out to our older neighbors — whether by helping an elder we rarely see any more or by volunteering at a senior center or nonprofit that serves older adults. There simply aren’t enough government resources to do this without the involvement of the community.

We must also continue to innovate. The pandemic has already been an accelerant for change, including more flexibility with telehealth, relaxed regulations on social services like ours and greater ability to quickly launch new solutions. This must continue.

And finally, additional funding is needed and it needs to come from public and private sources. The recently passed stimulus funding is a much-appreciated boost, but our growing senior population will continue to need resources. Again, in this critical cause, government can only do and provide so much.

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The writer is president and CEO of Meals on Wheels Orange County, a major nonprofit senior nutrition and supportive services provider.

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