Age-Friendly Leaders Join in COVID-19 Response Efforts

Posted on March 20, 2020

Making phone calls to isolated older adults. Marshalling donations of food and funds. Conferencing and collaborating with a host of community partners and providers.

Leaders of North Jersey alliance of Age-Friendly Communities have been actively responding to local needs as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread in the region.

The worldwide pandemic has upended the daily lives and routines of people all ages, but it’s created especially complex challenges for older adults with underlying health conditions.

Age-Friendly leaders have mobilized to provide tangible support, spread reliable information and build a virtual community at a time when members of every community must keep safe physical distances from one another.

Many older-adult programs – from meal deliveries to volunteer ride programs – have had to suspend or greatly alter operations this past week, for fear that their volunteers could unknowingly spread the virus to those they serve. Local and county governments are stepping in to identify those who will miss needed meals and other resources and devise emergency response plans to assist those who are most vulnerable.

In their efforts to connect with older adults who are struggling, many municipal officials and crisis responders have reached out to Age-Friendly alliance members to help serve as liaisons and information providers.

Age-Friendly leaders have tapped into community partnerships built over the past few years, trying to formulate new strategies for keeping older adults physically and emotionally healthy in the wake of suspended social service programs, cancelled recreational activities, interrupted transportation services, and growing food insecurity.

In the past few years, as local news coverage has waned, Age-Friendly alliance members have become trusted sources of reliable information and they have created new avenues of communication with older adults through newsletters, emails and in-person outreach efforts. Those communication tools have been employed this past week to share important announcements from local and state governments as well as safety tips and other helpful advisories from health, aging and caregiving experts.

At the same time, age-friendly alliance leaders have been brainstorming with other community leaders on how to best identify and respond to any unmet needs.

Westwood for All Ages, for example, helped engineer a community food drive for residents of a low-income senior citizen building. When officials in South Orange and Maplewood wanted to hold an on-line fundraising drive for financially struggling older adults, they reached out to SOMA Two Towns for All Ages – the age-friendly effort supported by those townships and Grotta Fund for Senior Care- for assistance in making sure the plea reached a wide audience.

Other Age-Friendly community leaders are in the process of devising ways to have grocery or restaurant deliveries set-up for older adults in need of assistance; to create on-line or live-streamed versions of yoga classes or other recreational programs that many older adults rely on for both physical fitness and social support; or to harness the good intentions of the many community residents offering to volunteer in some way.

The current pandemic likely will expose many of the weaknesses we have in our current systems of delivering care and needed resources to the most vulnerable in our population.

“What we’re all gaining more recognition of is that, with the aging of the population, we’re going need to have working systems in place to cover for emergencies like this.” said Julia Stoumbos, director of aging-in-place programs of The Henry & Marilyn Taub Foundation and co-funder of the alliance.

The days and weeks ahead will demonstrate the strength and breadth of community connections in North Jersey, and show how crucial these collaborations are in times of crisis.

“The age-friendly movement has been about promoting community leaders to work together to keep our older adults healthy and safe in their communities,” said Renie Carniol, director of Grotta Fund for Senior Care and alliance co-funder. “The response we’re seeing to this virus really shows us the importance of being an age-friendly community.”

The current crisis also will educate more people about the health ills associated with social isolation and about the potential value of creating lasting intergenerational connections.

“We’re all being asked to physically keep our distance from one another,” Stoumbos said. “That is leading people to understand the toll that social isolation, which many older adults already experience, can take on a person’s sense of well-being.”

Finding innovative ways to engage older adults in their communities so they don’t become socially isolated has been a major focus of Age-Friendly communities’ work for the past few years – a mission the pandemic has now made more urgent for people of all ages.

Age-friendly alliance leaders are heartened to see so many community leaders and residents stepping in at this time of crisis. New models of service will no doubt keep evolving in these next days and weeks. These are the type of collaborative local solutions that our alliance has sought to foster, and we continue to seek more community partners as we all strive together to get through these challenging days – and the ones that still lie ahead.