Bay Aging is a prominent part of a lot of people’s lives in this region, offering everything from food and housing assistance to transportation and social engagement. “But when the pandemic struck, we had to stop in our tracks and change a lot of things,” said president and CEO Kathy Vesley-Massey.

One notable change was with Bay Aging’s active lifestyle centers (ALCs), which give older adults an opportunity to get out, socialize, and participate in a range of activities. Before the pandemic, they were open three days a week, but to comply with the governor’s orders, the eight facilities shut down on March 16, 2020 and remained closed for over a year.

While people were sheltering in place, we tried very hard to keep them engaged with ideas ranging from hosting a virtual May Day to distributing seed packets hoping to encourage outdoor activities. But for the people who were used to attending the ALCs, it wasn’t the same, said Vesley-Massey.

ALCs in the Northern Neck have reopened but most are only open on Wednesday. But even with the reduced schedule, participants are happy to be back, and some have written the administration expressing it.

It is so much fun to see everyone again. I love talking to everyone and playing games and even exercising, a participant named Sharon Nubercutt wrote.

Thank you for making this available to us. It really gives us something to look forward to, another named Jeanne Barrett said.

Recognizing the importance, Vesley-Massey said Bay Aging wants to fully reengage at its ALCs but it’s proceeding slowly “because the pandemic is still with us.”

Restaurant meals were a hit

From late April through early December, Bay Aging ran the Helping Neighbors program, which offered anyone over the age of 60 free meals from local restaurants.

The program not only helped feed people, but with drop-offs twice a week and phone calls to participants in between, it helped combat social isolation and proved to be “extremely popular.”

The program also showcased the heart of the community.

Seventeen restaurants participated, some of which were otherwise closed. Although it brought them some revenue, “many of them did it out of community spirit.” And, “some continued to deliver meals even after the program closed,” said Vesley-Massey

The program attracted a new volunteer group that proved eager to help. And county governments pitched in with assistance and funding that proved critical.

“The counties did not have to fund this or get involved but they did. And they were very, very active partners making sure their citizens needs were met,” said Vesley-Massey.

Meals on Wheels booms

Once Helping Neigbors ended, Bay Aging continued offering meal delivery to every senior who was interested through its Meal on Wheels program, which provides full, frozen meals.

The combination of new and existing recipients kept the Meal on Wheels volunteers quite busy. While many people wanted to shelter in place, volunteers were going out into the community every day at their own expense, said Vesley-Massey, and she believes their work was a large factor in reducing social and nutritional stress.

Putting the demand into perspective, Bay Aging reported that during 2020 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the organization served the most meals through Meals on Wheels since 2011.

What many people don’t realize is a lot of older adults were working before the pandemic. Although in some cases, their income was modest, it was a sum that made a difference in their lives. Once they weren’t working people were reporting that they did not have money for their groceries. So, they were truly elated to get the meals, said Vesley-Massey.

Conditions appear to be improving. The numbers currently served remains high compared to pre-pandemic levels but have been dropping each month of 2021.

Bay Transit responds

In response to the pandemic Bay Transit, launched the Good To Go campaign, which involved retrofitting its buses with protective barriers between the driver and riders as well as between the passenger seats. Free masks and hand sanitizers were offered on all buses. And fares were suspended, making all rides free.

Bay Transit has decided to maintain the safety standards imposed during pandemic not only to address the COVID variants but also to help reduce other illness.

Rides are still free, and that’s unlikely to change before the new fiscal year on October 1.

Care for seniors and caregivers

Like many in the healthcare business, Bay Aging moved to telehealth during the pandemic. “It was a great learning tool for us, showing us it could work,” said Vesley-Massey, and “we will continue some of that even when we can go back into homes… Telehealth is going to stay.”

But that isn’t the only development in the senior care arena.

Bay Aging discovered that there was a great need across the region for caregiver support.

Caregiver stress became an even bigger issue during the pandemic with people feeling more isolated, and that was especially true for those dealing with loved ones newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Those diagnoses can cause caregivers to feel a lot of fear and uncertainty, said Vesley-Massey.

Based on the 65+ populations and the factors impacting dementia, Bay Aging statistician Julie-Northcott-Wilson calculates that 11 percent, or over 3,900 people in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula face dementia, and that’s a “conservative estimate.

So, Bay Aging has launched a caregiver support program, and is working with the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging to offer access to professional counseling for caregivers.

Normally, the counseling would cost $350 but Bay Aging believes the need is so great that it plans to make this program its big fundraising priority so that anyone who is interested can participate in the three-month program free of charge. Participation can be virtual and at the caregivers’ leisure.