Our aging population gets by during the pandemic with a little help from their friends

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Beth Eurich knew Bay County’s seniors were particularly vulnerable both to the virus and to the difficulties of social distancing.

Eurich, who runs the Bay County Department on Aging, called on her team to do everything possible to minimize the impact of both the virus and the isolation that’s recommended to keep seniors healthy. Social workers make regular phone calls to check on seniors. They also handle incoming calls from clients with questions about everything from safety and services to how to combat loneliness and boredom.

Bay County Executive Jim Barcia, seen her at a 2018 Bay County Department on Aging event, says the community owes high-quality services to its oldest residents.The home-delivered meal program, which was popular before, continues. Whenever possible, drivers deliver meals to homebound seniors. They knock and leave the food outside. Then, they stay until someone opens the door to make sure the recipient is OK. When home-delivered meals aren’t possible, the department stocks the kitchens of its homebound clients with shelf-stable foods such as tuna fish and canned vegetables. Seniors who can get out pick up meals at the Department on Aging Riverside location, 800 J. F. Kennedy Drive.

“Beth, her department, and our drivers, they are real heroes because they stepped up,” says County Executive Jim Barcia.

Bay County is in a unique position when it comes to senior citizens. According to the 2010 Census, about 12% of Americans are over 65. Michigan trended older in 2010 with about 17% of our population over 65 years old. In Bay County, the 2010 census showed 21% of our population was over 65 years old. That’s the highest ratio of seniors in Michigan. Other counties may have more seniors, but no county has a higher percentage of seniors.

Both Barcia and Eurich said they expect to 2020 Census to show even more seniors making Bay County home. They also encourage everyone, including seniors, to complete the 2020 Census.

Barcia says he feels the community owes quality services to our oldest residents since they worked and paid taxes here for a lifetime. At the same time, Barcia acknowledges studies predicting a decline in county population. Bay County needs to provide jobs, housing, and more to attract young people here. He points to success stories such as Uptown Bay City and old buildings being converted into upper floor condominiums and apartments with first-floor retail space.

“They need to have a job that will allow them to purchase a home and put down roots here,” he says.

During the pandemic, though, seniors face unusual challenges. First, the virus hits harder among people over 60 years old. Second, many seniors rely on caregivers to grocery shop, prepare meals, clean the house, and help with bathing and other personal care. During a public health crisis, though, experts encourage people to avoid close contact with others. Seniors are encouraged to isolate themselves from other people.

“Our clients were nervous,” Eurich says. “They were very nervous about us coming into their homes.”

While Eurich and her team reassure seniors that if they stay home, their risk of illness is minimal, they also are creating ways for staff to safely deliver essential services. The county secured money from the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) to help keep up with the expanding need for food and other services.

Before the pandemic, they delivered between 3,875 and 4,080 meals a week to homes. Now, they deliver about 4,550 meals to homes each week. Meal delivery is now contact-less, but still includes a wellness check. County workers can go grocery shopping for seniors, wiping down every item before placing it in the kitchen. Shoppers make sure seniors have enough food to last until the next visit.

The county’s congregate meal sites and activity centers are closed, but curbside pick-up is available for clients who aren’t homebound. Before the pandemic, about 866 meals were served each week at meal sites. Now, about 525 meals are served each week via curbside pick-up. When seniors pick up the food, staff take a moment to talk through the car window in order to provide a little companionship.

“It allows our population to get out in a safe way,” Eurich says. “They aren’t talking to each other, but they see the site coordinators. They get that minute of ‘How are you doing? Everything going OK?’ ”

Mental health is especially important for some. In the 1960s and 1970s, group homes and institutions for the mentally disabled fell into disfavor. As the people who left the homes and institutions age, sometimes the mental health issues grow. The Department on Aging works closely with Bay-Arenac Behavioral Health and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to meet those needs.

Bay County Executive Jim Barcia praised the county's Department on Aging employees for continuing to provide essential services throughout the pandemic.“We are very conscious of those who need us, not only for a meal, but for that mental health portion,” Eurich says.

In-home personal care services are available to help with baths and showers. Light housekeeping services are offered. A handyman works on a sliding fee scale to handle tasks such as replacing hard-to-reach lightbulbs.

During each in-person contact, county workers wear masks, gloves, and minimize time inside homes. Personal care workers are fully covered in protective gear.

“The county has done a great job of protecting the people we serve and the people who work for the county,” Eurich says.

The county also offers support and education for families taking care of older relatives. “We jokingly say we are the support to the support system through our caregiver program.” Social workers are on call throughout the business day to answer questions, provide referrals to services, and calm nerves. The social workers also are available to seniors, offering help with everything from combating boredom to applying for Medicaid. Call volumes vary between as few as 5 per day and as many as 15 per day.

“We’ve never left our seniors alone through all of this,” Eurich says. “I had one lady say ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be scared of everything.’ And I’m like, oh, I do. I do understand. You’re not preaching to the choir here. I totally understand how you feel.”