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Impact of the Pandemic on Seniors and Lessons Learned

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Helping Bermuda During the Pandemic 

By Jeremy Deacon 

There are few people who have not been touched by COVID-19 – a relative or friend who has been infected, a lost job, isolation, and loneliness. 

The Island’s seniors have not escaped the impact, with helping agencies seeing both good and bad effects, as routines are interrupted and the ability to get out and about curtailed. 

Calvin Ming, of the Salvation Army, says the immediate impact of the pandemic was “a little bit disastrous for some of the elderly” – the people the organisation services, and those that might be unfortunate or marginalized in society. 

“It was scary in the beginning because many of their connections were cut. And of course, for the elderly, that was a serious thing. When connections are severed, it leads to a huge increase in anxiety,” said Mr Ming. 

“Now, ironically, this is the group that also went through some tough times years ago. I heard someone say, ‘We’re right back to where we were during the war’. That was a little bit scary for them. 

“But I responded, ‘Well, what did you do then? How did you survive?’ Then they started to tell their stories about how they had to live. We were then able say, ‘Look, God got you through that. He’s going to get us through this.’” 

It gave seniors something they could associate with, said Mr Ming, “and helped them understand that they were going to be taken care of, if not by The Salvation Army, by other churches and charities.” 

That changed when shelter in place ended. “Now that they could leave their homes, they were feeling a little bit disconnected again and anxiety levels started to increase. We had to actually make sure that we provided telephone numbers to call for things like transport.” 

He added: “It wasn’t all bad. I think many families got a chance to spend some time together, which they would not normally have been able to do. The part that I didn’t like was the shelter in place.” 

“Many seniors were lonely and had to find some other things to do. We said, ‘Look, go next door or (have) some other folks come around and see what we can do about building your own little bubble.” 

On the overall impact, Mr Ming said: “I think positive and negative. There was a sense of loss, that ‘I was losing part of me because this is what I’m used to doing, and I’m no longer connected, or I find it hard to connect.’ It’s this that I believe many of our elderly were feeling.” 

“But there was also a sense that ‘somebody was taking care of me, somebody that I didn’t know, and I hadn’t met before. I now know some new people. I now know some new avenues of connecting.’ Somebody said, ‘I was afraid of using a computer, but in order for me to worship, I have to learn how to use a computer’. Now, how could that be bad?” 

Speaking on his fears, hopes and expectations for the people the Salvation Army helps (especially seniors), Mr Ming says, “First of all, I would hope that seniors understand that they are loved and cared for. Number two, I would hope that the marginalized will understand that they can gain a sense of independence. It’s an opportunity, I believe. 

“Every crisis is an opportunity to learn. And I believe people have to say, ‘What can I learn out of this? What can I learn for me or for my family? How can we come together as a family and pull with what we have?’” 

Meals on Wheels has been hugely impacted in the way it operates but has managed to maintain its operations. It has 45 seniors currently volunteering, five in the kitchen and 40 as drivers/deliverers. However, the percentage of volunteers who are seniors has dropped from 83% before COVID-19 to 60% now. 

“When the problems started, most seniors stepped aside out of caution, understandably, but many have come back, feeling the driving/ delivering roles are pretty safe if done carefully,” said Peter Smith, the President of Meals on Wheels. 

He added: “Our volunteers, the backbone of our organization, have had to adjust their lives to the new reality. That, of course, meant many of our old stalwarts stepped aside and new ones had to be found and trained.” 

He said during COVID-19 about 100 people have served as volunteers, including a number of professional kitchen staff who supported the charity during the time their restaurants were closed. “We now have about 75 active volunteers and are always in need of more,” he added. 

“We are currently serving about 180 clients regularly or about 720 meals a week. These clients are all unable to produce a meal for themselves and have no one they can depend on to do this for them. Many also have specific dietary requirements such as diabetic or renal diets. 

“The process of evaluating an applicant, of ensuring they meet our criteria and of establishing their dietary needs is an important part of our operation. Our client services manager tries to personally interview each applicant, visit them in their home, and speak to their doctor to confirm dietary needs. Carrying this out has been particularly challenging during the pandemic.” 

Mr Smith added: “The impact of the coronavirus has placed significant financial burdens on our clients. Prior to the pandemic approximately 60% of our clients were able to pay something towards the cost of meal production and we had a sliding scale of charges to meet their ability to pay. However, many who had previously been able to contribute something towards the cost of the meal suddenly found themselves unable to do so.” 

As a result, the meals were provided for free and it is hoped to be able to continue this until the coronavirus crisis is over and the economy has started to improve. 

While some are, necessarily, being provided with food, others have taken it upon themselves to grow their own and Chaplain Dr. Kevin Santucci, who runs the Grow Eat and Save Gardening Workshop, has seen many seniors take advantage of his scheme. 

“In 2017, the Health Department and I stepped out with the first classes,” said Chaplain Santucci. “Our aim was to enhance the development of a National Nutrition Policy for food security on the island. We recognized that this could only be done through the people of Bermuda having accessibility, affordability, and sustainability through growing their own healthy foods.” 

Now in its fifth year, the workshop offers two classes a year for eight weeks. Chaplin Santucci still serves as the senior garden instructor, alongside other garden instructors and 15 volunteer gardeners. The goal of the garden class is to see that every class member has a good foundation in gardening. 

“In 2000 I spoke with former Minister Dale Butler about the need to prepare Bermuda for a day when the wholesalers and grocery stores will not be able to provide fresh vegetables as they would like for our citizens. 

“I went on to say, Bermuda should look at a plan to help its people grow their own foods. Since COVID-19, we have seen these things come to pass. The impact has been greatly felt by all, but especially by our seniors, who for the most part live on a fixed income. 

“During this time, the Grow Eat and Save Workshop has been able to still teach, and I am happy to report that our seniors have taken advantage of these classes with other citizens to learn how to grow food and save money.” 

He added: “During this pandemic, staying at home, avoiding public spaces, and working remotely are all important steps required to reduce the spread of the virus. But for many people, especially our seniors, this is not the safest option. 

“The stay-at-home orders and shelter-in-place options have also become a life-threatening area for our seniors and others. Their physical and mental health has been compromised in the very place where they should feel safe, which is their home. 

“Gardening can help connect us with nature, and helps us focus on the bigger picture, which can alleviate symptoms of depression. Also, the physical aspect of gardening releases feel-good chemicals in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine. A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust. 

“We have seen an increase in all ages of class members to the Grow Eat and Save Workshop. But the seniors have shown a higher interest and we have a number of seniors helping in different ways in the gardening workshop, even as plot leaders.” 

Chaplain Santucci added: “Today I appeal to Bermuda to take out a little more time to support our seniors because they have the wisdom, but not the strength, to do the needed work. Let us take out a moment for them, and in return, you will leave much wiser than you came.” 

For more information and registration on the Grow, Eat, and Save Gardening Workshop. You can contact Mrs. Mellonie Furbert, BS, RD Public Health Nutritionist at the Department of Health. Telephone: 441 – 278 6467 / Extension: 6467 / Email: [email protected] 

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