13 May 2020 A Closed Senior Center with an Open Heart Is Determined to Serve During COVID-19
This article is part of a summer series that highlights the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.
Even during the best of times, the stress and anxiety of coping with cognitive decline, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and a host of oftentimes interconnected health concerns create a unique set of challenges for Southwest Florida’s elderly residents and their families who fill a vital role as caretakers. Among the most vulnerable among us during the COVID-19 crisis are our seniors facing such age-related issues.
When sudden health and safety guidelines required social distancing and drove an unprecedented temporary closure of the Naples Senior Center at JFCS, the nonprofit may have been forced to close their doors for the time being, but their hearts remained wide open to the nearly 1,000 regional residents they serve.
Dr. Jaclynn Faffer, president and CEO of the organization dedicated to meeting the human service needs of seniors and their families in Collier County and southern Lee County, says the circumstances surrounding their operation changed overnight.
“We went from a situation in which our members enjoyed and benefitted from spending time here, participating in a range of programs and activities that support their overall health and well-being, to a situation in which they needed to stay home and isolate themselves.”
Among the crucial services the welcoming, nonsectarian center provides are dementia respite, geriatric case management, emotional support, and a food pantry, all of which foster an improved quality of life as it strengthens seniors and their loved ones to navigate the challenges of aging.
At the outset of the closure, Faffer and her staff instantly pivoted to new ways to maintain members’ connective lifeline to the center and each other, even if they couldn’t physically be on-site. It began with a friendly and familiar voice on the phone and expanded into virtual connections via the Zoom video meeting platform.
“We are fortunate to have more than 200 vetted and trained volunteers who, along with our professional staff, immediately began to make between 800 and 900 calls every week. And we always have the same staff member call the person who is isolating, so a relationship develops, and they can feel a sense of connection.”
One of the center’s significant services impacted is a dementia respite support program, a unique offering that was available twice a week prior to the health crisis. The program provides those coping with cognitive impairment a range of engaging community activities, while it gives caretakers a chance to decompress and talk with others facing similar challenges with their loved ones during a time that can be emotionally difficult.
Zoom has become an important stand-in for the in-person program. But because not everyone was familiar with the video platform and can sometimes struggle with learning new technology, Faffer says staff worked with caregivers to help them get their loved ones engaged online.
“This has allowed us to keep members socially connected to the friends they’ve made here as well as to activities and programs,” she points out. “Plus, it’s allowing us to connect the caregivers with a virtual one-hour dementia respite program every day of the week.”
In addition to maintaining members’ sense of community connection, the center also recognized an essential need to address food insecurity. For some seniors, the center’s Wednesday hot lunch was their only hot meal of the day, and staff would serve from 150 to 175 people before the outbreak. Further, the center delivered nearly 30 hot lunches and shelf-stable items from their food pantry to those who were homebound and in need. Now, food delivery has increased to nearly 50.
Adhering to recommended public health guidelines, dedicated volunteers pick up hot lunches and shelf-stable items from the food pantry prepared by center staff and deliver them to those in need, determined to not allow social distancing to translate into social isolation.
“We have the same volunteer delivering to the same person,” Faffer says. “So it’s not just the food, but it’s also maintaining relationships and that sense of community.”
Like nonprofits throughout Southwest Florida, the Naples Senior Center at JFCS is turning to innovative thinking and creative new approaches to continue to deliver the essential services they provide. With the economic downturn that has accompanied COVID-19, the funding necessary to continue to serve those who are among the region’s most vulnerable has become more important than ever.
Faffer says the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s grant support has been crucial. “The Community Foundation has been a godsend. Their support has enabled us to continue to deliver programs and services, particularly in the area of food delivery. They are a true partner.”
Looking to the future, Faffer acknowledges the uncertainty surrounding a return to more normal operations. But she, the staff and the volunteers remain steadfast in continuing to deliver on the center’s mission.
“Right now, the need is as great as it’s ever been. We are delivering services differently, but we’re making sure our seniors’ needs are met, and that they and their families are not struggling impossibly with the challenges they’re facing.”
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $7.7 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $134.9 million, it has provided $85 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. The Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are now located in the historic ACL Train Depot at Collaboratory in downtown Fort Myers, with a satellite office located in LaBelle (Hendry County). For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit www.floridacommunity.com