Watch: A chat with California’s Department of Aging director on coronavirus and seniors

The director of California’s Department of Aging said Wednesday that the coronavirus pandemic is not only helping inform the state’s evolving Master Plan on Aging but also putting the state’s response to its senior population to its “ultimate stress test.”

Kim McCoy Wade made the remarks in a wide-ranging web conversation with CalMatters health care reporter Ana Ibarra and economy reporter Judy Lin on what senior citizens can do to protect themselves during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 5 million Californians are over 65 — a population growing so quickly that Gov. Gavin Newsom has created a task force on aging. It is also a population that has proven to be statistically more vulnerable to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. Because of that, Newsom on Sunday ordered people over 65, among others, to remain sequestered indoors.  

The governor’s directive to remain at home has left many anxious. In the CalMatters webcast, McCoy Wade tackled a list of questions from “Can I ride my bicycle as long as I’m alone?” to queries about grocery delivery for seniors who do not have someone who can pick up food for them.

While older adults have been advised to try their best to stay at home, the state’s guidance does make exemptions for “essential activities,” such as grocery shopping, picking up medication and exercising. But people should be asking whether these needs can be met some other way, McCoy Wade said. 

“I’ve been wondering if all the college students who are now home and telelearning would be willing and able to step up in a new way and partner and be part of these neighbor-to-neighbor teams.”

— Kim McCoy Wade, California Department of Aging

 “What we’re all about right now is moving services to the telephone, to the internet, by mail, or by neighbors,” she said.

Seniors with no other options can look into the special hours some grocery stores are reserving for shoppers 65 and over. “It’s not as good as staying at home, but people need to eat,” she said. Also, food delivery services such as DoorDash and Uber Eats have remained open.

The state also is working on ways to keep food banks and Meals on Wheels programs running. Seniors have been the backbone of the volunteer network that help run those efforts, but they’ve had to withdraw to protect their own health. Local 2-1-1 lines can offer more information on these programs, she said.

Spending more time at home also can create financial stress. “Elders reminded us that if they’re home all the time, their utility bills are going to go up, so there’s more for us to think about what it means to be at home more with either fixed income or less income,” McCoy Wade said.

To deal with another type of stress – the loneliness of isolation – the director recommended having five people to call or text every day, from friends and families to members of a church, temple or mosque congregation. National hotlines can also help. Folks with dementia, for example, may be experiencing a particular anxiety, which can be difficult for families and caregivers to manage, participants noted. They’re encouraged to call the Alzheimer’s hotline for support.

McCoy Wade also had a suggestion for younger Californians: “I’ve been wondering if all the college students who are now home and telelearning would be willing and able to step up in a new way and partner and be part of these neighbor-to-neighbor teams,” she said.

Still, gaps in response and questions on best practices remain. These, she said, will likely influence the state’s Master Plan on Aging, a 10-year blueprint that is supposed to address how California will meet the needs of its graying residents. Ordered last year by Newsom, a progress report on the plan is due this month, with a final plan due in October.

“Obviously it wasn’t written with a pandemic in mind,” she said, but the situation has zoomed in on clear needs, she added: more information about how to navigate systems, more services, better affordability, more support for working seniors, and better coordination between state and local governments.

“Those five truths are being the ultimate stress test right now,” McCoy Wade said.
By Ana B. Ibarra

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