When we hear about long COVID, it’s often in the context of symptoms experienced by an individual. But long COVID also accurately describes the effects the pandemic continues to have on whole systems.
That is especially clear, and increasingly concerning, when looking at the state of community services for older adults.
Serving as the federally designated Area Agency on Aging for metro Denver, the Denver Regional Council of Governments coordinates with partners to obtain federal funds and provide a wide range of older adult services including meals, transportation, and in-home care. When the pandemic hit, it was inspiring to watch our partners, volunteers, and seemingly every corner of our communities rally to ensure our older family members and neighbors continued to receive the vital services they needed.
Restaurants, unable to host diners, prepared food for home delivered meal programs. Residents went shopping and ran errands for their neighbors. Community service providers launched massive efforts to help older adults receive health care via safe transportation or telehealth appointments. With great uncertainty came great compassion to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities.
But with the urgency of the pandemic now waning for many of us, services for older adults in the metro area and throughout Colorado are struggling. As with the physical symptoms of long COVID, the most disconcerting aspect of this problem is that there is no guarantee of relief in sight.
Of chief concern is the impact of on-going labor shortages and absenteeism among staff and volunteers within our partner agencies — and even with the Council of Governments itself. Living with COVID means we’ve developed the means to more effectively prevent death and hospitalization. It does not mean people are no longer getting sick, sometimes for extended periods.
On a recent Monday, our agency staff was met with 127 messages on our information assistance line. Nearly each of these messages represented an older adult looking for help because they needed a service that was difficult to access, largely due to staffing shortages fueled by surges in COVID cases. We serve a large population but rarely, if ever, have experienced such a sudden, concurrent need.
For older adults, these shortages can mean there’s no one to get them to an important medical appointment such as a dialysis treatment. It could mean losing out on housing after being waitlisted for months, but having no way to get to an applicant interview. These are, unfortunately, not hypotheticals. They’re issues we continue to see in metro area communities.
We also know from our partners that it has become increasingly challenging to maintain volunteers for meal delivery services. Would-be volunteers are often sidelined by illness themselves or are concerned about contracting or spreading the virus. This is creating a knock-on effect that further strains volunteer ranks, as those still providing meal deliveries must work longer and drive farther, often at their own expense. For many, the time and financial commitment of volunteerism is becoming difficult to sustain.
These volunteer and staffing issues are particularly troubling because demand has only increased. There are significant factors driving this need among older adults. Lingering effects of a previous case of COVID and deferring care for other health issues during the height of the pandemic are certainly part of it, as is the toll of social isolation, which was increasing considerably among older adults prior to the pandemic, and remains one of the greatest health and quality-of-life concerns for aging Coloradans.
In meeting these challenges, our strength is that we have the knowledge and systems already in place. We are fortunate to have providers who know their communities deeply, and have demonstrated time and again their resilience and compassion for delivering services that are cost-effective and meet their clients’ needs.
What we need is a healthy, robust workforce. That requires sustainable financial support. Leaders at the local, state, and federal levels must continue to make older adult services a priority.
It also requires help from all of us. We ask older adults to stay strong by keeping up to date on vaccines, boosters, and protecting their health when cases are on the rise. They’re doing their part. It’s vital we do ours. That’s ultimately what keeps meals arriving at front doors, medical appointments on schedule, and housing opportunities in reach for our older family members and neighbors.
All of us will rely on others — family, friends, neighbors, or compassionate service providers — as we age. Maintaining our ability to meet older adults where they live, with the services they need, will be the surest sign we’ve truly moved beyond the pandemic.
Jayla Sanchez Warren is the director of the Area Agency on Aging for the Denver Regional Council of Governments.
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