SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—In early November 2021, Meals on Wheels’ (MOW) congregate meal sites reopened to older adults across Santa Cruz County for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
Staff and volunteers from MOW, a program of umbrella organization Community Bridges, combined their efforts to restart the program, while following the latest Covid-19 precautions.
So it was disappointing, said MOW director Lisa Berkowitz, when everything came to a halt again in January, due to a surge in cases and the threat of the Omicron variant.
“The opportunity to socialize is what our clients were most looking forward to about opening back up,” Berkowitz said. “We really hope the increase in cases will be short-lived so we can reopen again very soon.”
According to Berkowitz, MOW saw a 52% increase in the number of meals they were delivering to older adults during the pandemic. However, not having in-person meals is a major setback.
“It is a huge factor,” said Katie Nuñez, older adults services supervisor at the Watsonville Senior Center, where congregate meals are held in South County. “A big reason why people come here is for socialization, being able to eat together.”
Community Bridges CEO Raymon Cancino said they hope to reopen their meal sites in the next couple of weeks.
“That at least gives us some time for the exposure due to the holidays to settle down a bit,” he said.
Community Bridges is also looking to open a new site for meals in Mid-County, after the Live Oak Senior Center closed in March 2020. Many of those residents have had to travel to Watsonville or Santa Cruz.
“It’s been incredibly difficult for them, not having a place to congregate and call home,” Cancino said. “We are actively looking for a new Mid-County site.”
At the Watsonville Senior Center, members had just started to come back for in-person activities when Omicron hit.
“We were getting to the point where people were feeling comfortable about coming in,” Nuñez said. “When we first opened … Some of them were in tears, so happy to be back. Within weeks you could just tell a difference in how people were feeling. Coming to the center brought so much joy to their lives.”
While the center still offers some in-person activities, numbers have quickly declined. Nuñez said that within a week the number of participants per week dropped from 40 down to five or six.
“We’re trying to focus on reevaluating, making sure that we’re being as safe as we can and still providing a place for people to come and socialize,” Nuñez said. “A lot of our programs are still running. We’re trying to offer them and hope people will come, while we regulate mask use and vaccines.”
Watsonville Mayor Ari Parker said she was thankful that Nuñez and her small staff have kept the center open as so many other services shutter. She hopes the recent closures are just temporary.
“We need to be there for our seniors,” she said. “They are so often swept under the rug. We can’t expect them to be OK, just because they’re adults. There needs to be a balance. I don’t think some people recognize that.”
Parker serves as the representative for Watsonville’s 7th District, which includes neighborhoods off of East Lake Avenue around the senior villages. She called the people there “very active,” with a mixture of people living with their families, partners and alone in small apartments, houses and condos.
“Having seen all the things that happened to our seniors [during the pandemic], the biggest negative was not just getting sick,” she said. “It was also losing that social connection.”
Watsonville Senior Center continues to work with Elderday Adult Day Health Care and other countywide groups on Senior Center Without Limits, a program offering older adults free virtual classes, workshops and support. Fewer people started turning out as things opened, Nuñez said, but they are still available.
“We want to remind people that we still offer those online services,” she said.
Elderday, another program of Community Bridges, has also decided to briefly suspend its in-person programming.
“We had hoped we’d be back fully by now,” said Elderday Director Lois Sones. “So we are pretty disappointed. There were some people who hadn’t even come back yet, and now they still can’t.”
Sones said they are worried they will see more decline in their participants, many of whom already struggle with isolation and loneliness. People over the age of 65 have accounted for 80% of Covid-19 deaths, and Sones said a recent seminar she attended revealed that those who suffer from anxiety and depression are much more likely to die of the virus.
“There is so much discouragement right now,” she said. “A lot of stress, feeling helpless as things worsen again. So our participants who are once again being sent home are much more vulnerable.”
Berkowitz said she hopes that the experience of the pandemic has made people a bit more sympathetic to what older adults routinely go through.
“The pandemic has given us a peek into their world,” she said. “Socialization is critically important for mental, emotional and even physical health. After the pandemic, we will have an opportunity to reach out more and work with seniors. They are critical members of our community.”
The best way to help now? Get vaccinated, said Sones.
“This helps protect your community, especially your elders,” she said. “Also, if you have older family members or friends … contact them. Reach out. Take them a magazine, give them a call, go stand outside their window and have a chat with them.”
MOW is always looking for more volunteers. Berkowitz said that volunteer drivers have been “critical” during the crisis.
“We very much depend on volunteers,” she said. “They are golden to us, they make it possible to do what we do.”
Learn more about volunteering, Elderday programs and Senior Center Without Limits at communitybridges.org.