In the 18th century, Robert Burns eloquently wrote about how often the “best laid plans of mice and men” are foiled. Ever since, literally billions of individuals have repeated the saying and claimed it to describe their own personal situations. Over the course of the last week additional billions of folks have thought the same thing – although this time in virtual unison as COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, has swept across the globe with frightening speed. In less than a week we have gone from outbreak to epidemic to pandemic. It is a fact that is affecting all of us.
Some groups of people are more vulnerable than others, we are constantly reminded by experts, as a way to make us mindful of who needs special protection and should be given priority with such things as testing. Of particular concern are those that the media is calling “the elderly.” How are these elderly defined? All people age 60 and older are corralled into this category. That doesn’t just mean our nation’s older population who rely on the so-called “aging network” for the delivery of goods and services that they need to lead healthy lives. It also means those legions of paid staff and volunteers who are the ones who have been routinely delivering meals to their peers.
Yes, that’s right. We at NFESH know from years of working with senior nutrition programs that the majority of the workers are seniors too. So then, the challenge is compounded and the serious question becomes just who will step up to assume the vital task – yes, we mean that literally –of making meals available not just to those seniors who have been homebound for some time but also to those who are finding themselves told to self-quarantine for the sake of their health.
The question is a serious one in this moment of national crisis; it is also one that needs to be addressed once the coronavirus passes. Who will be the future providers of meals and other life enhancing and supporting services as the current workforce ages out? How will we ensure good quality of life and social engagement to those thousands of elderly who live alone and who rely on the senior center to be their community? These are not hypothetical questions – they are real life concerns and they are documented.
As part of our work with several states over the past few years we have administered surveys to those individuals who participate in senior nutrition programs. One of the critical questions relates to their living situations. Large numbers respond that they live alone. That is a hard place to be now if one is in quarantine. And it could become a hard place to be for thousands of others in the future as well if the current providers of meal services age out and no one comes after them to take those positions.
We know that our focus today needs to be on responding to the current crisis and ensuring every senior who is in need of food gets it. But we do see this as an existential question as well and an opportunity to educate younger folks about the life needs of those “elderly” that live in their communities and to begin to recruit them for the future.