Salt Lake County works to foster connections with seniors amid the coronavirus

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Millcreek Senior Center member Paul Baker waves to the staff and thanks them for his Friday lunch. Millcreek Senior Center hands out meals during the daily drive thru lunch service, Friday, March 27, 2020. All of Salt Lake County's senior centers have been closed indefinitely in order to protect a population that's thought to be more vulnerable to COVID-19.

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Millcreek • Vernon Holzer, 75, came to the Salt Lake County-run senior center near the Millcreek Community Library “every day” before the coronavirus forced its closure.

“I eat, there’s company and there’s a library," he said. "How can you go wrong?”

Once teeming with activity, that senior center and the 15 others the county operates have now gone dark. But that hasn’t stopped Holzer from making almost daily trips to the Millcreek site, which, along with those other county-run facilities, is still offering a weekday drive-up lunch service.

“If it was open seven days a week, I’d be here,” said Don Lennon, an 86-year-old Holladay resident who drove with Holzer to the Millcreek Senior Center on a recent day for a lunch of baked sausage ziti with a green salad and sherbet.

The daily lunches, available to anyone over age 60 for a suggested donation, may be the only meal some of the clients get each day, said Sandi Simmons, an office manager at the Millcreek center. But for the majority, the daily trip is simply a way to make up for the lost social interaction the center once provided.

“They are not just feeding their body; they need the social network,” Simmons said in between trips handing the lunches into cars at a safe social distance.

Afton January, a spokeswoman for Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services, said the response to the coronavirus has been a “huge adjustment” for the entire community.

But for seniors, “it’s been a real challenge to have fewer places they feel they can go,” she said. “There are already in society in many ways fewer places that are welcoming to older adults and that’s kind of the purpose of the senior center. Having had that taken away by the crisis has been really frustrating for a lot of our older folks.”

Seniors have been directed to be even more careful than younger populations, since those over age 65 are particularly vulnerable to severe illness as a result of the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eight in 10 deaths in the United States associated with the virus have affected that age group so far.

As of Saturday, Utah had documented eight deaths from the coronavirus: 77-year-old Bob Garff, the chairman of the Ken Garff Automotive Group; 24-year-old Silvia Deyanira Melendez from West Jordan; a woman from southwestern Utah who was under age 60; a Davis County man over age 60; a Weber County woman under age 60 who had underlying conditions; an 83-year-old great-grandmother who lived in a senior care center in the Salt Lake City area; and one other person about whom few details are known.

The eighth death was announced Saturday. It was a woman at least 85-years-old who was a resident of a Salt Lake City nursing home, where the virus has spread to other patients. In coordination with the Utah Department of Health, that nursing home will now only house residents who have the virus.

While Salt Lake County Aging Services is implementing social distancing measures to promote physical health — like keeping a 6-foot distance while providing lunches at its senior centers — January said staffers are also concerned about mental health and loneliness amid mass social distancing and stay-at-home efforts across the state to curb the spread of the virus.

Older adults in the United States are more likely than in other countries to live alone, a recent Pew Research Center study of more than 130 countries and territories found. In the U.S., 27% of adults ages 60 and older live alone compared to 16% worldwide. And American couples are also more likely to live without young children in the home.

That means the guidance currently in effect to decrease the effect of the coronavirus on the public health system may have a particular impact on seniors.

For 76-year-old Carl Wall, a disabled war veteran who lives alone and usually comes into the Millcreek Senior Center every day to walk the track, the center provides both exercise and a social outlet.

Without that lifeline, “it is kind of lonely at home,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune recently after picking up his meal. But the Department of Veterans Affairs is still sending someone in four times a week to clean his house, get his groceries and care for him — so he hasn’t been completely without company, he said.

Loneliness comes with its own health risks, researchers have found, including depression. Some studies have found that the signals activated in the brain by loneliness can affect the production of white blood cells, effectively reducing the immune system’s ability to fight off infections, according to The New York Times.

When they’re operating normally, the senior centers “offer that connection and clubs and interactions” that many seniors rely on to maintain their mental health, January said. And while it’s no longer safe for staffers to create that space, they’re looking at other ways to foster community — including through the new drive-up meal service and weekly wellness checks staffers are performing at each center.

“We’re trying to duplicate that connection over the phone with our staff members,” January explained.

At the Millcreek center, which has the most active community of all the facilities in Salt Lake County, the team is working its way each week through a list of 1,290 seniors that have visited the site in the last year, said Sunni Hobbs-McKinney, the center manager.

“We’re calling down the list to say, ‘How are you? We just want you to know we’re thinking about you. How is your health? If you have any symptoms, here is a number you can call. Do you have enough food? Can we get you set up with resources?’” she said.

The county is asking the rest of the community to do the same thing, January said, encouraging younger people to “call your grandparents” and older adults to make an effort to stay engaged with their parents as the coronavirus wears on.

“Technology is amazing these days and although not every older adult necessarily wants to or has the desire to engage with technology, I think a lot of older adults are more tech savvy than we give them credit for,” she said. “This is a great time for people like you and I to reach out to our grandparents and say, ‘Hey you have never used FaceTime before, would you like to try it?’ Or ‘Let me get you on Facebook if you’re not on Facebook.'”

The telephone is also a “good old-fashioned connection tool” that most seniors are familiar with, she added.

For older adults who are less mobile and can’t make it to a senior center each day, the county still operates its Meals on Wheels program, a meal delivery service offered to people over 60 who are homebound or have disabilities that make it difficult for them to access food any other way.

To ensure social distancing, volunteers drop those meals in bags on porches, step away from the doors and wait to ensure the clients receive them.

Salt Lake County Aging Services is also continuing its Rides for Wellness program, which offers transportation to adults over age 60 with no other way of making it to medical appointments — though January noted that the county uses new, stricter sanitation measures.

“Our message to folks out in the community is if you’re over 60 and need something, you should still call Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services” or a comparable aging service in another part of the state, January said. “By and large we’re offering the same types of services. They’re being offered with new procedures around social distancing and sanitation."

And while the seniors at the Millcreek center long for life to go back to normal, Lennon said they’re keeping in touch with old friends the best they can — and experiencing the “fellowship” that characterizes the center in new ways.

“Yesterday, I was at Smith’s up here shopping and some woman stopped me and said, ‘You don’t know me, I don’t know you, but I do know you,’” Lennon recalled. “She said, ‘I come to the senior center for lunch every day.’ She doesn’t belong to a senior center, but she wanted to know how I was getting along … She was just worried about me.”

“It’s one big happy family,” he added.