In the last two years, the Sowega Council on Aging (SCOA), like so many other organizations, has been challenged to find new ways of accomplishing our mission, especially when it comes to programs that are delivered in a congregate setting. Every year, we help connect more than 60,000 seniors and disabled people to a wide range of resources in our 14-county service area. These services touch on all areas of life from personal care to transportation to legal services. Most importantly, however, we serve more than 216,000 nutritionally balanced meals to more than 1,700 older adults and adults with disabilities, helping to address potential malnutrition or hunger issues.
“First and foremost, the Senior Center Without Walls is a Congregate Nutrition Program,” notes Izzie Sadler, SCOA Executive Director. “State and federal funding is based on the number of meals we serve. Home-delivered meals are available for housebound individuals, but the congregate meal program is aimed at active seniors.”
In our congregate meals program we provide nutritionally balanced meals in a community setting. The goal of this program is to encourage seniors to remain social, which promotes independent living and can help with depression, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.
For many years, seniors enjoyed meals and activities provided at senior centers throughout the SCOA service area. Of course, when the pandemic hit two years ago, that model had to change. Due to Covid-19 and other circumstances involving overhead costs, SCOA was pushed to move in a different direction and discontinue the congregate meals program in traditional senior center settings. In order to meet the challenge of continuing to provide services while also maintaining the social distance and safety requirements needed, the former program evolved into the current Senior Center Without Walls program.
“We know that many of our seniors miss the senior center experience,” says Sadler. “We hear and recognize that. We want them to know, though, that the new Senior Center Without Walls model offers a lot of opportunities for them that were not available before.”
One of the biggest changes in the program is that participants now receive meals from a restaurant in their community rather than at a senior center. Individuals can choose to dine on their own schedule and with anyone they choose. Restaurant dining also encourages community involvement. Since switching to this meal distribution method, the program has grown from 500 participants throughout the region to a peak of 1,500 with 700 more on the waiting list.
“We’ve never had even one person on the waiting list before,” remarks Sadler. “Before, we needed at least 20 people per day at each senior center to meet the criteria for funding, but some communities just did not meet the minimum. For example, in Cairo we regularly had 15-17 people per day. When we started the Senior Center Without Walls program, that number shot up to 237 people in the meal program.”
Activities to complement the meal program that were previously held at senior centers are now available virtually, whether that’s online, via a ZOOM call, or even by telephone to any participant in the 14-county region, regardless of which county hosts a program.
“What we’re seeing with the new Senior Center Without Walls model is that we’re not limited by the square footage of a building anymore,” explains Sadler. “Now we’re open to the whole community. It’s been a game changer with how we serve people.”
Another initiative that is changing the way that people can participate virtually is the Claris Companions pilot program. Clients receive a handheld tablet specifically designed for seniors, along with one-on-one assistance from SCOA staff on how to access SCOA workshops and wellness programs, as well as online games and popular websites like YouTube. Users can also direct message SCOA staff at any time and use the personal technology device to keep in touch with friends and family. The tablets include built-in Wi-Fi, and there is no need to launch apps or enter passwords. The program has been such a success that SCOA is currently seeking additional funding to be able to expand the number of Claris Companion tablets available.
While virtual programs have opened up opportunities to reach more people than we ever have before, we also recognize the desire for our clients to gather together in a safe setting, especially as pandemic restrictions begin to ease up. To help meet this need, we recently issued six mini-grants in the region to support in-person senior programming. A main grant requirement was that the program had to be open to everyone over the age of 60, not just SCOA clients.
“So now, for example,” Sadler points out, “in Leesburg you can go and eat at our participating restaurant there, Big Chris, and then go the library and play Bingo or participate in a crafts workshop. The library is also offering a program creating life legacy history books. We had a report from the Lee County Library that 27 people came to play Bingo when we used to only get 15 people at the senior center there, so that one program almost doubled in attendance.”
Another program funded by the mini-grants was a water aerobics program at the Albany Area YMCA. “You can’t do that at a typical senior center,” says Sadler. “These mini-grant funded programs are great examples of how, through Senior Centers Without Walls, seniors can be actively involved in their communities.”
The last two years have forced change in many areas, including the switch from meals and programs at SCOA senior centers to the Senior Center Without Walls concept. While transitions can be challenging, they can also open doors to new and exciting changes, like the opportunity to offer our services to a much broader audience. Through Senior Center Without Walls we have been able to use technology and community involvement to provide nutritious meals and quality programs to many more people.
Despite the changes, the bottom line, says Sadler, has stayed the same. “What we do hasn’t changed, but how we do it has changed. Our organization is still staying true to our mission to coordinate a system of services that promote the well-being and independence of older and disabled Georgians, helping them achieve healthy and self-sufficient lives. The fact that more and more individuals are taking advantage of these services is the best result of change that we could hope for.”