Connie Pickering volunteers at the Human Services Council, driving older adults to appointments around town in her Nissan Leaf. She noticed the number of ride requests fell during the pandemic, particularly when people weren’t able to attend medical appointments.
“It’s starting to pick back up, but it’s still less than it was,” Pickering said while dropping off Bennye Wright on Wednesday at The Vancouver Clinic.
The decline in older adults using transportation services is one result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit the senior community particularly hard. According to the state Department of Health, people age 60 and older account for 56 percent of hospitalizations and 88 percent of deaths from the novel coronavirus.
As seniors tend to stay home, more are requesting assistance with food, particularly home-delivered meals, and social isolation is on the rise. The volunteer base for many service providers relies on seniors who are shying away from service activities.
During the Clark County Commission on Aging’s meeting Wednesday, the Human Services Council said it lost 80 percent of volunteer drivers, who tend to be older. Simultaneously, requests for transportation services decreased 72 percent. So, the silver lining was the agency didn’t have to turn down clients, said Jeananne Edwards, specialty transportation manager.
While demand is now slowly increasing — as medical offices reopen and people seek library materials for entertainment or limited social outings — ridership is still down from this time last year. Many people are still very isolated, she said. Edwards said the agency was fortunate its funder allowed money to be used to make deliveries, such as picking up and dropping groceries and prescriptions for people.
The Human Services Council is also piloting a north county shuttle that picks up people on weekdays and takes them into Battle Ground for appointments and shopping.
“If you have somebody that you can check in on, check in on them,” Edwards said. “We’re all feeling isolated. … Our most vulnerable people are really feeling it and they don’t have somebody to reach out to and they’re feeling really alone.”
Seniors have also called the Human Services Council with questions about Social Security or getting their identification updated as those services have been pushed online. Continued funding for the Human Services Council’s services is important, Edwards said.
Mikayla Springob, with the Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities of Southwest Washington, echoed the need for continued funding and senior advocacy.
With the closure of congregate meals at community centers at the end of March, namely through Meals on Wheels People, seniors lack that opportunity to socialize and eat a nutritious meal, Springob said. Meals on Wheels People made more than 28,000 phone calls between April and the end of May checking in on isolated seniors.
Commissioner Franklin Johnson asked if the phone calls uncovered any other issues.
“People are missing their friends,” Springob said, referring to the community at congregate dining centers. “They want to go back. That’s really what we’re hearing.”
She’s also seen a big demand for food services, whether it’s senior vouchers for food at farmers markets or home-delivered meals through Meals on Wheels People. Many clients live alone and have annual incomes of less than $20,000. More seniors are using food banks to supplement store-bought groceries.
Food bank responds
Alan Hamilton, president of the Clark County Food Bank, noted that the mission is to alleviate hunger and also its root causes. Since the pandemic began, it’s mostly focused on the former.
“The demand has been so great and the food supply chain was so interrupted,” he said.
Much of the food bank’s root cause work, which requires face-to-face interaction, was put on pause.
The regional food bank uses 43 partners at 130 distribution sites around the county, serving an estimated 100,000 people.
Emily Kaleel, director of programs, said each local food pantry operates differently. Some are doing a drive-thru food distribution or give out pre-boxed food. People can have food delivered if they can’t travel to a pantry. The food bank takes food boxes to senior living facilities, the Safe Parking Zone at the Evergreen Transit Center and the quarantine and isolation motel in east Vancouver.
The pandemic has changed how the food bank gets food, processes and distributes it, and also the clientele.
It’s hard to track exactly how many seniors are using the food bank because it’s a reasonably anonymous experience, Hamilton said. In a survey, 21.8 percent of respondents said they were 65 and older and 33.7 percent had at least one person in their household who was 65 or older.
Seventy-six percent of clients speak English, 13 percent Russian and 11 percent Spanish. Kaleel said many senior clients are Russian-speaking and cannot read, write or speak English. What’s more, many people are new to the food system and don’t know where to start.
Embarrassment for seniors can be a big issue. The drive-thru food distribution model has been successful, Hamilton said, not just because it’s safe and convenient, but also because it’s less embarrassing for seniors wanting to maintain their dignity.
When asked by the Commission on Aging how it could help, Hamilton said he would like needing and receiving help to be normalized.
“Let’s find ways to do more of that,” he said.