About a month has passed since the first restrictive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt here in Coachella Valley—and no group has been affected more than the valley’s seniors, who are at a much higher risk for serious illness and death from the coronavirus.
In turn, the valley’s senior centers have taken on a daunting task: Finding ways, with suddenly depleted budgets, to serve their clients remotely—many of whom are already battling loneliness and isolation.
“When all the centers shut on March 16, we started on our call-back list,” said Laura Castillo, the director of nutritional and operational services for the Mizell Senior Center in Palm Springs. “We were on the phone with clients, sometimes 45 minutes to an hour, just talking to them.
“This (COVID-19 crisis) has created a real issue for a lot of our seniors. They’re scared. They don’t know where to go or what to do. They haven’t been given directions on anything, and half of them don’t know what’s going on. They don’t understand why there’s no toilet paper at the stores. They don’t understand why they can’t get eggs. So … we talk to them.”
Over at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert, executive director Jack Newby said his clients are facing similar problems.
“One of the things we’re doing is calling every one of our members,” Newby said. “We have over 2,000 members, so we’re working our way through the alphabet, basically. We’re contacting them to see how they’re coping.
“We have a program called Problem Solving Strategies, which is a counseling program designed for short-term situational issues and to help people solve those problems. What we’re finding from (those contacts) is that, the longer this shelter-in-place order stays in place, the more frustrated people are getting with having to stay at home. You know, they’ve read the books; they’ve walked the dog a million times—so much so that now the dog is hiding in the corner. They’re starting to feel the stress of being at home alone. … One of the most serious issues that seniors and older adults face is isolation and the loss of their social network. So, for our senior members, it’s as if, a few weeks ago, their best friend suddenly passed away—that social network that many of them built after their spouse or partner passed away was suddenly just gone. So, we’re doing everything that we can.
“We’ve started doing a daily Facebook live video at 11 a.m. to help keep people exercising. In fact, we’re trying to turn our Facebook page into a virtual senior center. Some studies show that isolation among older adults can be as serious as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, in terms of health consequences. So that’s why we’re here (as a senior center)—to keep people active, engaged and exercising. Suddenly, that’s not available.”
Many people also depend on the area’s senior centers for much of their nutrition. Castillo said the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Mizell Senior Center to alter its routine in many different ways, both in terms of Meals on Wheels clients and members used to getting meals in person at the center.
“Meals on Wheels (represents) both of our (nutrition) programs rolled into one,” Castillo said. “We deliver food to congregate sites, which includes most of our senior centers in the Coachella Valley, and then we home-deliver meals as well. In the home-delivered aspect, the changes mostly (involve) our drivers, who are being very conscientious about social distancing. They’re trying to make sure that (our senior home-delivery clients) don’t look sick or troubled by something that’s going on. Also, they wear gloves and face masks, and they have sanitizers in their vehicles.
“The food hasn’t stopped (being prepared) and provided by us. The only challenge in making the food is that, during this pandemic crisis, the deliveries from our food providers have changed, and I find myself substituting in our menus more frequently than I used to before. Our congregate (on-site meal offerings) have completely closed down. Now nobody comes into our building on a daily basis except for our nutrition staff and our senior management. We do still make meals for our congregate clients, but now we have a drive-through set up to distribute them. We give our seniors the food to-go while they’re still in their vehicles. That program runs Monday through Friday every week, from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Also, we still provide (meals) to the Cathedral City (Senior Center), which does a pickup-and-go service for their senior clients as well. We also (support) programs at the Indio and Coachella senior centers, as well as the Desert Hot Springs senior center. So we’re still trying to feed all of our seniors the way we did before.”
The Meals on Wheels program is still functioning, albeit with extra precautions—and the number of clients is growing.
“Our (Meals on Wheels) clients were home-bound anyway,” Castillo said, “but we facilitate the program for the Riverside County Office on Aging, and this has brought to light a lot of seniors who are mobile, but really can’t go anywhere now, because they have underlying health issues, and they need to stay home. This has created a big ripple effect where we, along with the Office on Aging, had to come up with a new plan. Now all the applications (for new services) have to be funneled through the RCOA, and we are adding new clients at a rate of about three a day.”
Over at the Joslyn Senior Center in Palm Desert, Newby said the coronavirus has created an increase in demand—and a more stressful environment for his Meals on Wheels drivers.
“It’s volunteers who are making our deliveries,” Newby said, “and as a result, we have to be constantly aware of (the well-being) of our volunteers. If anyone should become ill, or not feel comfortable doing their routes, then we need to replace them. We’ve been able to keep up with that so far, but that’s one of the challenges that we are facing. Currently, we serve between 60 and 70 (clients) a day, and we have gotten new requests for Meals on Wheels service from clients over the past weeks. We keep (our drivers) at about 12 clients per route, so we are reaching capacity—and considering adding an additional route, too.”
At the Cathedral City Senior Center, executive director Geoff Corbin said the center is determined to keep its nutritional-outreach efforts operating at full strength during the crisis.
“We provide two essential services during the pandemic,” Corbin pointed out. “One is the lunch program, which is now extended into weekend, and the other is our food bank. With our lunch program, we’re one of the few sites that offers it five days a week. So it’s become very important to the people who use it.”
However, the Cathedral City Senior Center has had to transform the way in which its food bank—something Corbin referred to as “an essential service”—gets food to clients in need.
“It used to be that our large activity room would be turned into what looked like a Trader Joe’s. In fact, Trader Joe’s is one of our biggest sources of food, other than FIND Food Bank,” Corbin said. “Every Saturday and Sunday, we pick up van loads of food (at Trader Joe’s) that’s about to date out, and it goes into our Monday food banks. They’re donating tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of food products annually. But, right now, that (walk-through food bank) is suspended. Still, all the folks who come by and pickup curbside meal service (on Monday) will get a couple of pre-packed bags of food now.”
The closures of the senior centers’ physical locations has led to dramatic revenue losses—and the three centers have joined forces to overcome that and other obstacles.
“The Joslyn Center, the Cathedral City Senior Center and the Mizell Senior Center have been working together and meeting regularly for the last month or so,” Newby said, “first in person, and now via teleconferencing. We share information, and all of these nonprofit senior centers share the same concern. This epidemic hit at the peak of our season, which helps provide us with the resources to make it through the summer, quite frankly. During the summer, our electric bills go up to $5,000 a month, and our income is reduced. So we’re all working together to share resources regarding grants that are available; information about the Small Business Association loans that are becoming available; (and reaching out) to local foundations and encouraging them to make emergency grant funding available to senior centers. Our own executive committee has been meeting every week for the past month to work on these various issues and develop a cash-flow analysis. We’re being sensitive to the foundations, because so many of them who provide funding have their funds in investment accounts—and we all know what’s happened to those in the past few weeks. It’s similar to what happened in 2008, and it’s come very suddenly.
“The senior centers depend on donations, class fees, memberships and all of that, during this peak season time of year when the snowbirds are here and taking advantage of our services. Suddenly this year, on March 16, all of that came to a screeching halt.”
Corbin said he’s spending a lot of time looking for funding.
“Our maintenance and cleaning costs have gone up, and we still have to keep the building (running for the slimmed-down programs) and keep it staffed,” he said. “… We’ve lost all of our earned income. We made all that money playing bingo and mahjong and other games where people pay activity fees. So, our earned income has absolutely ground to a halt, and our contributed income is suppressed—and we don’t have large reserves, so we are in crazy fundraising mode. Just a couple of days ago, we applied for $10,000, which is the limit of what we could (request) from the Desert Healthcare District’s emergency funding option. Now I’m trying to put together a response to the SBA for a Paycheck Protection Program (loan) which, if we were eligible for that loan and got it, could keep a portion of the payroll going. We do have a ‘donate now’ (link) on our small MailChimp list, and believe it or not, we raised $750 from that, which is something we have not done. We will do more in terms of community fundraising as we move along.”
Castillo said the Mizell Senior Center had to lay off 10 staffers.
“I know the financial (realities) are always an issue,” Castillo said. “Right now, I can only keep the development director on, but I can’t afford to keep her staff on. How can I? All of our (in-house) programs are shut down, because the center is closed.”
Castillo said that despite the tough times, seniors should know there’s help available to them—whether or not they’ve been senior-center clients before.
“Right now, my main concern is that we’re still able to serve our seniors and bring on any other seniors who have concerns about food insecurity at this point—and there’s so much of that going on within the senior community,” he said. “Any seniors looking for help should call 800-510-2020. It connects them to the Riverside County Office on Aging, and they’ll get guidance there as to whether they can come on our program, or whether they can pick up food vouchers. They’re doing a lot for our seniors.”
For more information on the Mizell Senior Center, visit mizell.org. For more information on the Joslyn Center, visit joslyncenter.org. For more information on the Cathedral City Senior Center, visit theccsc.org.