Seniors are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 & its social effects (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
The outbreak of the deadly new coronavirus, COVID-19, throughout New York City has led to over 11,400 fatalities. One group particularly hard-hit by both the virus and its cumulative social effects has been senior citizens, older adults who often have underlying health conditions and less ability to fight off a serious infection.
Data provided by the New York City Health Department shows that more than 70% of the coronavirus-related fatalities in New York City through April 15 are among those 65 years old and older. (More than 90% of the deaths have been among people 45 years old and older.)
Seniors are also the largest growing demographic in the city: “from 2005 to 2015, the number of New Yorkers over 65 grew by 19.2 percent, which was more than double the rate of the total population,” according to a report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. The city, the report says, is home to “more than 1.1 million adults over 65, about 13 percent of the city’s total population.”
This older demographic is now additionally vulnerable given the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that it preys upon those with underlying conditions like cancer, chronic lung disease, and heart conditions; has led to the closure of senior centers; shown to spread quickly in nursing homes; and put intergenerational family visits on hold while increasing social isolation, food insecurity, and access to care.
With these impacts, dangers, and constraints in mind, The Center For an Urban Future (CUF), a think tank focused on equity, economic opportunity, and the social fabric, recently put out a report with 40 policy ideas that CUF and the other experts it consulted say city and state lawmakers should immediately consider.
“Supporting Older Adults Through Coronavirus: Ideas From Experts and Leaders Across NYC” offers ideas for combating social isolation, developing relevant technology, “bolstering telehealth services, mobilizing laid-off workers to increase the output and delivery of take-home meals, and developing a central information portal to communicate important updates and resources to seniors and providers.”
CUF consulted a variety of leaders from organizations that provide services to seniors, and noted that there was widespread agreement “that the city needs to provide more support to the nonprofit organizations serving older adults, by increasing flexibility and funding contracts at levels that accurately reflect the full cost of service delivery.”
To indicate the importance of addressing the needs of seniors, especially during this crisis, CUF writes that there are more than 1.7 million people in New York City who are age 60 and over, including 141,000 city residents over 85, “more than 136,000 who are homebound, and one in five who are living below the federal poverty line.”
To combat social isolation exacerbated by social distancing requirements and closure of the city’s senior centers, CUF recommendations that government officials “draft volunteers to phonebanks for older adults to reduce isolation.”
The idea, submitted by Ed Friedman, the executive director and co-founder of Lifetime Arts, Inc., says each senior center or organization that serves older adults should be helped to “enlist a group of volunteers and staff to help make phone calls to every registrant, three times a week.”
The immediate goal of the proposal is to help those who live alone to feel less isolated, but if there is a more severe problem, the volunteer may be able to identify it and help.
A similar proposal submitted by Darrean Bloch, CEO of Greenwich House, suggests redeploying senior center staff and volunteers, whose facilities are now closed to congregating, socializing, and meals, to outreach.
“Groups with contracts to do this work should be formally authorized, and everyone should be provided with contact lists and other resources, and linked into a centralized database to track and facilitate outreach,” the proposal reads.
Another idea presented by Friedman is holding online classes where older adults can participate in the arts.
“This will provide meaningful social engagement among participants as well as a meaningful activity that doesn’t have to focus on the epidemic. In addition, it’s a jumping off point for participants to expand their social network beyond these classes,” the proposal reads. “Cultural and arts education organizations can partner with organizations that serve older adults for purposes of outreach.”
Terry Kaelber, director for the Institute for Empowered Aging, United Neighborhood Houses of NY, suggests including seniors in the emergency response itself.
The policy recommendation suggests the government provide technology to engage seniors by “create[ing] virtual support groups, and send informational updates on neighborhood resources” to city seniors. To implement this idea, the proposal suggests providing resources to community organized to access video and conferencing calling services, developing phone trees where staff can complete daily check-in calls, engaging older adults in the planning of community responses to the virus, and providing valuable information to seniors about the spread of the city’s and who to contact if you are ill.
New York City’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) oversees “230 neighborhood senior centers, 16 innovative senior centers, and 39 sites affiliated with senior centers” across the city and has 1,393 contracts with agency providers to deliver services, often meals, according to budget documents.
With those senior centers closed as part of the city’s response to the spread of COVID-19, and in combination with social distancing measures that limit visitors for seniors, meal delivery to older adults has been a key concern for many.
Several proposals presented in the CUF report suggest ways to increase and improve meal delivery in the city.
“It is critical that the city create a centralized intake process (an online portal and clear system through 3-1-1 or Aging Connect) to expedite new senior home-delivered meal requests during this time,” reads a proposal from Katelyn Andrews, director of public policy at LiveOn NY. “The system should partner with local restaurants that may be struggling under current circumstances but may have capacity to churn out hundreds of meals for at-risk neighbors (and may even have experience in delivery, too). Taxi drivers, hard-hit even before the pandemic, can also be recruited to deliver the meals, as is currently and admirably being explored by the city.”
A few recommendations suggest hiring laid-off food-service professionals to boost staffing of community kitchens or to deliver resources. The city has closed restaurants and bars for all but takeout and delivery, leaving many without work. Wayne Ho, president and CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council, Inc, said that “there is an opportunity to support these workers while meeting the immediate needs of older adults,” such as delivering food, medicine, and personal protective equipment.
“The benefits of having senior centers serve as the focal points of meal production are two-fold: 1) Senior centers are trusted and reliable service hubs physically embedded with vulnerable neighborhoods including public housing developments. 2) Directing economic resources to communities-in-need during a time of crisis supports the immediate welfare of residents, businesses, and service providers, and creates the opportunity for longer-term interest and investment in historically underserved and under resourced neighborhoods,” the recommendation submitted by Gregory J. Morris, president and executive director of the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center, says.
One proposal presented in the report to improve meal delivery suggests giving free meal distribution to buildings (for example, NYCHA or naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs)) that house older adults with disabilities but lack built-in senior centers. The recommendation, submitted by Nancy D. Miller, the executive director and CEO of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, suggests that it could be done in coordination with the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities and Department for the Aging.
Another suggestion is to ensure that home-delivered meals are provided in multiple languages. “The city should ensure that instructions on how to properly prepare and store these meals are provided in the most common languages spoken by older people in New York City (Spanish, Chinese, Russian) and in legible font (at least 14 pt.) to ensure safe consumption,” reads the suggestion from Lindsay Goldman, director of healthy aging at the New York Academy of Medicine.
Other topics covered by the proposals include providing non-profit organizations with no-interest loans so they can keep up service, guaranteeing protections to human services case workers as first responders and designate shelters in each borough for homeless older adults. Read the full report here.