Feeding seniors safely during COVID-19

Townships innovate to get meals where they need to be

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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

Oak Park and River Forest Townships Senior Services continue to provide the same amenities for senior citizen residents – just in a different format to keep people safe from COVID-19.

"Basically, all of our services are continuing; they've just shifted in a little bit different fashion because we are working to protect our seniors and our team members from face-to-face contact," said Pamela Mahn, Oak Park and River Forest Township Senior Services director.

According to Mahn, all modifications of services were made in accordance with directives from the local Area Agency on Aging, Illinois Department on Aging, as well as other local, state and federal guidelines.

 Provided services include transportation, various meal programs, benefits counseling and caregiver support among many others.

Staff now conducts well-being checks via telephone for participants and caregivers, while benefits specialists now assist people with Medicaid, Medicare and other benefits through email or on the phone.

Senior Services has also made considerable changes to and seen considerable changes in its food services program.

"We are seeing significant increases in nutrition programs due to the shelter-in-place order and people not wanting to go to the grocery stores," said Mahn.

Senior Services has suspended on-site dining at the Senior Services building, 130 S. Oak Park Ave., and switched to pick-up and delivery of shelf-stable and frozen foods.

Those enrolled in the lunch program can pick up meals at the Senior Services building on distribution dates. Per each distribution, participants receive enough bulk meals to last them until the next distribution.

"As we have the next distribution dates, we have the capacity to do robocalls for participants and to put the word out to say, 'We'll have boxes available on this day; please come and pick up your box,'" Mahn said.

Senior Services asks that people remain in their cars and wait for a staff member or volunteer to deliver the food. Staff records the names of people who come to pick up, so senior services do not have to sign anything.

"We have talked about setting up the logistics for kind of a drive-thru capacity so that we don't have to have people getting in and out of their cars," Mahn said. "And we can work with the village and the police department on that."

A drive-thru, Mahn thinks, will allow for more time-efficient distribution.

Senior Services, with help from volunteers, also provides meals delivered directly to the homes of senior citizen residents.

"We have the volunteers go to the door, put the meal on the step, knock on the door and move back to the sidewalk, so that then they can verify that the person is opening the door and receiving the meal," Mahn said.

From March 12 to March 31, Senior Services provided a total of 8,625 individual meals to between 350 to 400 local residents over the age of 60.

"The volunteers and all of the staff who have helped us have been wonderful," said Mahn.

Senior Services, Mahn said, is still taking on volunteers to help carry out its modified food services.

"[The Park District of Oak Park] opened a volunteer registry portal for residents interested in assisting with meal delivery, grocery shopping or other one-time needs that may arise during this time," she said.

Mahn said the Senior Services team is "extremely grateful" for the "dozens of volunteers" who have helped assist in meal delivery.

To further prevent the spread and contraction of COVID-19, Senior Services has limited its transportation services.

Under normal circumstances, Senior Services offers curb-to-curb transportation within Oak Park and River Forest in fully accessible buses for any purpose, including errands and social activities.

"We still have transportation service, taking people only to dialysis and to medical appointments that are absolutely necessary," Mahn said.

Transportation staff and buses are also helping to distribute meals to senior residents enrolled in meal programs, as well as assisting in the delivery of meals to senior citizens sheltering in place through Housing Forward programs.

The Senior Services transportation department is also assisting Beyond Hunger in delivering food to homebound older adults and delivering food to senior citizens living at the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park.

"Our commitment to seniors in Oak Park and River Forest remains strong as we continue to provide a combination of services on site, by telephone and through electronic means," Mahn said. "In many ways it has been strengthened, seeing our team members, community partners and volunteers step up their efforts to get meals, masks, information and support to all who need them in whatever way possible."

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