Another COVID-19 casualty: caregivers’ respite programs
On March 16, pandemic safety restrictions shut down the adult day respite program at the Orleans Senior Center, a critical lifeline for many clients and their overtaxed caregivers.
The program served client families in four Lower Cape towns: Orleans, Harwich, Brewster and Chatham, giving caregivers a break from their responsibilities and providing clients the opportunity to socialize, enjoy activities and share a meal.
“My husband was there for a couple of years,” said Martha Moynihan, 77, of Brewster. “It was a wonderful experience for him, and for me, too. It provided me an opportunity to get things done and to retain my sanity.”
Moynihan’s husband Gerry, 80, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about 10 years ago. The day program provided stimulation and socialization he enjoyed and helped maintain his level of mental functioning. With it now closed, she said, “I’ve seen him progress with this disease.”
But now there’s new hope for patients and their families, with news that the program will resume in 2021, with the help of a $20,000 community benefits grant from Cape Cod Healthcare.
“There was no way to operate the program the way we were operating under COVID-19 safety restrictions,” said Judi Wilson, executive director of the
Orleans Council on Aging, which runs the senior center. “What we realized is that we really needed to go back to the drawing board to see what we could do.”
The pandemic closed similar programs throughout the state, leaving caregivers and clients without the support and services they relied upon. The Rock Harbor Respite program, as it is known, serves towns with some of the highest percentages of seniors in Massachusetts.
“In our community, probably more than 50-59 percent are over 60,” Wilson said. “That isn’t the state average – we are much higher. We also have a high number of people 85 years or older.”
“Right now on Cape Cod, there are no adult daycare programs open at all,” Wilson said. “So, it’s been a very long year. We know that this a very important program on the continuum of care for adults who are trying to age in the community, independently, for as long as possible. This is a stop in the continuum of care, and it’s important to get it operational again.”
“So, we’re going to create a modified respite program that will give caregivers a break, at the same time, giving their loved ones opportunity to get socially engaged in very small groups in a very safe way,” she continued.
Caregivers Praise the Program
Shirley Hannon, 84, of East Orleans, said her husband Bill, 86, went to the day program three days a week for years after he suffered a stroke.
“He loved it. I loved it; it gave me some time off,” she said.
Both Moynihan and Hannon said they and their spouses have taken advantage of some Zoom offerings from the council, but hope the day program resumes.
“Oh my gosh, it could be wonderful,” Hannon said. “Not just for me, but for him. They challenged him.”
The respite program will resume, but in a different format, as safety precautions limit how many clients can be gathered at one time indoors. The hope is to start the program in March and run it through October, at which point the situation will be assessed to see if the program can safely expand.
Clients and staff will be broken up into small pods that will meet separately in a section of the senior center that has been refurbished with surfaces upgraded to healthcare-grade vinyl that can withstand frequent sanitizing. Physical and mental fitness activities, as well as the chance to socialize within the same pod, will be offered. However, there will be no meal served – at least, not at first.
“It will be half-day program, at least until vaccination happens; it won’t include a meal,” Wilson said. “Once vaccination happens, we will restart serving a meal, which we have always served a home-cooked meal to participants in the program. But because you have to take a mask off to eat, we’re trying to be safe as possible.”
During the Shutdown
“What has happened over the course of 2020, with the pandemic, is that the people we typically served through our supportive daycare program have become very isolated,” Wilson said. “We know that connection is a social determinant of health. We learned that people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia have high risk from negative impacts from COVID. And we know their caregivers have really been on 24/7 since March when most of the programs shut down that serve people.”
Families have reported that some of their loved ones who have dementia have really declined because of their lack of engagement and activities, she said. “And, honestly, the caregivers have had very little meaningful support or break from their caregiving responsibilities.”
Since March, although the senior center has been closed, the staff has reached out to the community with Zoom meetings, meal deliveries and offering exercise classes online and on cable TV.
Realizing that many older residents either don’t own a computer, smartphone or tablet, or don’t know how to use them, the council has loaned out iPads and offered classes in computer skills.
“Those iPads come equipped with data plans, so you don’t have to have internet service at the home to connect with family, or participate in programming or do a healthcare virtual health appointment,” Wilson said.
Grant helps fill a big need on the Lower Cape
The program that closed last March was governed via intermunicipal agreements among the four towns. Each town contributed to the care of its participants, a model that will continue. The community benefits grant will pay for about 20 percent of the program’s services between March and October 2021, Wilson estimated. It was not used for improving the facilities at the senior center.
The former respite program had 18 clients and three staff members when it closed, Wilson said. Numbers will be lower when the new program starts, but should grow once pandemic safety measures relax.
“We’re hoping at that point we can return to a more traditional model and serve as many people as possible,” she said.