By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
To an occasional visitor, working at the Walpole Senior Center seems like a pretty sweet gig. You sign in a couple of seniors, maybe do some scheduling, watch a little pool, catch a presentation on Broadway music of the 1940s, grab a sugar cookie, and call it a day. It’s only when you peel back the curtain and see the flurry of activity going on behind the scenes that you realize how hard these people work, and how difficult their job actually is.
With this misconception existing when their doors are open, it’s not hard to understand how the public would know so little about what COA workers are doing while the senior center is closed due to the coronavirus. While the internet is flooded with videos of people expressing thanks to doctors, nurses and other professionals that regularly work with seniors, at this time, COA workers aren’t getting the same treatment.
Because, since the senior center is closed, they’re not doing anything, right?
“Our phone has not stopped ringing,” Kerri McManama told me on Wednesday, after asking how I was doing and if (even though I’m not from Walpole) I needed any help. “We’re all in right now. The percentage of my department that’s working is 100 percent.”
What are one hundred percent of her workers doing? A ton. See, the needs of the community are evolving, diverse and often quite difficult to solve. For example, McManama’s team has been fielding nonstop calls about issues like utilities, how to order groceries, how to receive home services when a family member cannot travel to perform them anymore, and conversely, how to cancel home services when seniors don’t want to risk bringing an outsider into their homes.
“Right now, we’re serving mostly seniors, but we are starting to get calls from other people, as well. We’re even getting calls asking about information about utilities - are utilities going to get shut off - but I wouldn’t be surprised by any question at this point. We’ve had such varied inquiries, and we’re assigning them to staff and trying to work through them. Right now, there aren’t answers for every question, but at least we can help people to not be alone and try to help them navigate it together. All of us are learning as we go.”
Answering phone calls isn’t the only thing the team is doing. The COA team collaborated with the Walpole Community Food Pantry to deliver meals to people’s homes, the kitchen is still serving as a Meals on Wheels base (which more and more people have begun signing up for due to the crisis), and trying to get some of the fitness programs that used to be held at the center on television.
“Yesterday, we executed more than 80 home deliveries - people that are either at the Walpole housing authorities, seniors known to us, families known to the pantry or other community members who had a need. We’re taking all of those orders, figuring out who needs it, scheduling their route; it was a beautiful kind of collaboration between us, the community food pantry, several departments of the town, the Rec Department, the library, our staff and several community volunteers. It was really a beautiful community moment. So, we’re doing that, but also checking in on our most isolated, at-risk people, ensuring they know the Meals on Wheels are continuing. Our kitchen is still serving as a base of operation for HESSCO’s Meals on Wheels program - people can still sign up to get a daily meal delivered in that way, Monday to Friday. We’re still providing home care services through HESSCO, so if people have higher needs at home, we’re making referrals to home services through HESSCO, because families that may have been caring for people aren’t able to visit them right now. I guess the long answer is: we’re figuring it out as we go, because the needs of the community are so varied and we’re just trying to be here for whatever they need us to do.”
McManama spoke of how well everyone is adapting to the new meal delivery system, where food is left at the door and a person is called and told it’s available. She noted that so many seniors are suffering media fatigue from the nonstop coverage of the virus, and how they were trying to combat this by getting senior center programming on television. She talked about how her delivery drivers were mapping out routes for volunteers, so they weren’t wasting time crisscrossing Walpole. And she individually pointed out the intense work that every person in her department was doing during this incredibly trying time.
McManama had no timetable for when the senior center could open, pointing out that before the lockdown, they were serving around 200 people a day - so it’s odd to see the center so barren. But when that day does come, we know who’ll be waiting for them: a group of people that have run themselves ragged trying to serve the community at the most difficult time to be a senior in American history.