In the era before coronavirus — which can feel like eons ago at this point — it was easy to move through a typical day without thinking much about neighbors. Sure, you might wave on the sidewalk, or hold the elevator door, but it was easy not to talk much.
Since COVID-19 brought the city to a virtual standstill, checking in on neighbors is maybe more important than ever. People who may already have been vulnerable to sickness, hunger and other issues, have become even more so as leaving the house for groceries — or even a walk — has become dangerous, if not impossible.
Luckily, Riverdale Neighborhood House already has a program for those homebound senior citizens in need of help. Its telephone reassurance program was launched in 2007, instituting a way to not only stay in touch with seniors who don’t get out much in our neighborhoods, but also to ensure they have food, health care and companionship.
“The main purpose of the program is to help people who are the elders in our community, who are socially isolated,” said Zenobia Kelly, the program’s director. “Every day, we see this more and more, because there are people out there who have no one. Even those who have someone, they go to work or may be out of state.”
JASA, the Jewish Association Serving the Aging, refers clients to the line when they’re in need of local help, Kelly said. But sometimes friends or family members who can’t be home with their loved ones call to set up check-in phone calls.
Volunteers call each person between three and five times a week, Kelly said. They keep a log of what medications people are taking and when they need them, so the program can make sure prescriptions are being refilled on time and forgetful clients are remembering to take their daily pills.
They have connections with senior-focused agencies all over the city, making connections for people struggling with anything from making a doctor’s appointment to finding affordable groceries.
Beyond just practical reminders, though, the calls connect homebound seniors with someone who knows and cares about them.
“They will say, ‘Why isn’t Grace calling me today? She usually calls me,’” Kelly said. “‘I missed hearing her voice. Is she OK?’”
But don’t volunteer to work the phone lines unless you’re willing to put in the time, said new neighborhood house executive director Marcia Santoni.
“Zenobia has a whole training program,” she said. “It’s commitment, it’s not just, ‘Oh, call these seniors and feel good about yourself.’ It’s really a commitment on the part of the volunteers because they get so intimately involved with the daily lives of these people.”
That commitment means some days a volunteer may call to find the senior on the other end quiet and upset, Kelly said. Usually, with a few questions, that volunteer can find out why and start to make headway toward a solution.
A common issue in the winter is high energy costs as the days grow shorter. A program is available to help seniors with those high bills, but they sometimes forget to apply, Kelly said. A volunteer, asking the right questions, can help them apply and keep their lights on without worry.
The program made more than 1,000 calls in April, Santoni said — hundreds more than in a normal month. Added to the other usual tips shared by the volunteers included help in protecting the seniors from the coronavirus, like hand washing and maintaining a safe distance from others when they’re out and about.
There are nine volunteers currently making calls, and there’s always room for more, Santoni said. But they all have to be trained by Kelly before they can jump into making calls.
“We’re bringing on people to add to capacity and intensity,” Santoni said. “Which is important because it’s a real lifeline, and a safety net that is very committed.”
People older than 65 are considered at-risk for complications from COVID-19, especially pneumonia and other inflammations associated with the virus. Knowing that some of the seniors are afraid of getting sick, Kelly’s volunteers have started giving new advice.
“They tell the seniors what not to do, what to expect,” Kelly said. “And if there is a sign of anything, let us know. If you think you’re having a fever, if you think you’re losing your appetite, let us know, and let us take it from there.”
The concern goes both ways, Kelly said, and the seniors will often ask volunteers if they’re staying safe and taking care of themselves.
And participation in the program goes both ways as well. Not only is there room for more volunteers, but also room for seniors to become part of the regular call list.
“None of us would like to know seniors are sitting at home because they don’t know how they could get a meal, or see the doctor,” Kelly said. “We don’t want that to happen. If they want to come into the program, and they need any service — and we know where it’s available — they’ll have it.”