As the so-called “silver tsunami” of the baby boomer generation begins to crest, and the world contends with a pandemic going on 14 months, services for older adults have never been more important.
Over the last year, SeniorAge, one of 10 area agencies on aging in the state, has worked to adjust and increase its programs, and continue providing key nutrition, socialization and transportation services for older people in southwest Missouri.
Established by the Older Americans Act of 1965, there are currently 655 such agencies operating in the United States. Missouri’s fall under the authority and budget of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, says SeniorAge CEO Starr Kohler.
SeniorAge began in 1974 and serves 17 counties in the southwest region of the state, including Greene and all surrounding counties, going as far east as Shannon and Oregon counties.
SeniorAge offers a variety of programs and services for the over-60 population, including assistance with Medicare enrollment, wellness programs and volunteerism opportunities. It also operates 36 senior centers – seven of those in Greene County. The organization operates on a $15 million annual budget distributed by DHSS from federal funds and general state revenue.
“We’re set on helping seniors maintain their dignity and independence in the least restrictive environment, the warmest, most hospitable environment – the one they really love,” Kohler says. “We connect them to the support services they need to age successfully at home and take advantage of the many opportunities aging also brings.”
As COVID-19 hit, SeniorAge had to close its senior centers, removing a key connecting point for its programs, particularly a social environment for older adults who may live alone or otherwise feel isolated.
Juli Jordan, marketing and development director for SeniorAge, says the centers were closed until a recent soft opening on May 3. They are now open for socially distanced activities but still do not provide in-person meals as they did before the pandemic.
When the pandemic began, SeniorAge adjusted some programming to virtual options, like other organizations, but had the unique challenge of working with a population that is often less technically savvy. But with the aid of SeniorAge, older adults have been able to access virtual wellness classes, sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations and participate in crucial social activities.
“COVID has opened up a whole new world for seniors, virtually,” Jordan says. “Now that we’ve been able to walk them through the process and orient them more, the people who are homebound are able to participate in things they wouldn’t have before.”
SeniorAge also relies on its own connections to maintain services, including long-standing partnerships with other area not-for-profits including Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc., Ozarks Food Harvest Inc., United Way of the Ozarks and the Give 5 volunteer program.
Jordan Browning, public information officer for Ozarks Food Harvest, says SeniorAge has partnered with the organization since 1989. Despite closing all in-person dining halls, he says SeniorAge was able to increase its distribution.
“The south-side branch, just in 2020, was able to distribute more than 260,000 pounds of food, which is pretty big for a SeniorAge,” Browning says. “They really were able to ramp up their volunteer base and they stayed on mission of making sure the seniors they were serving stayed fed.”
Meanwhile, the north-side Springfield location distributed about 52,000 pounds, which is more reflective of a typical year, Browning says. Eight SeniorAge locations also participate in Ozarks Food Harvest’s Senior Box distribution to give packages of food to older adults within a certain income range.
“They were very, very helpful in making sure some of that food got out to the senior population specifically,” he says.
Because COVID-19 required plenty of adaptation, it pulled a lot of SeniorAge’s focus over the last year, Kohler says. One change the organization is hoping for is a shift from cookie-cutter offerings at each center to a grant-sponsored environment with more flexibility, which likely would take a few years.
“This is probably the precursor of many challenges our society is going to face that are new and different, so we would like to unlock some of the more bureaucratic hold over centers and give them the opportunity to make their local activity centers what they need locally in their community,” Kohler says.
Kohler says leaders also are looking to change the operations model at senior centers, moving from an employee-driven management to involving more community seniors and advocates.
“COVID reminded us of how strong and how capable our communities can be, and we want to empower them to increase the services of the senior centers through more local management,” Kohler says. “We’re adamant that seniors are not a burden on our communities. They are an asset and a wealth of experience.”
Kohler says the experiences of COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on how society views older people.
“We think that the future for seniors will be forever changed because of the empathy that society may have now for the challenges they have,” Kohler says. “This generation will remember what it feels like to be at home, isolated.”
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