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Maine Senior Advocates: COVID-19 Lays Bare Dire Situation Many Elders Face

Senior advocates, including one from Maine, told a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Sen. Susan Collins that COVID-19 has sharpened the focus on the needs of elders.Betsy Sawyer-Manter with SeniorsPlus, the Western Maine Area Agency on Aging, testified Thursday before the Special Committee on Aging that her office is delivering 46% more meals than before the pandemic started, and the number continues to climb.

And Sawyer-Manter said the pandemic has also revealed how isolated seniors are feeling. "We have been inundated with calls on our helpline. Our staff is fielding around 100 calls a day and that's climbing. We have three administrative staff answering the phone live, and they report receiving calls from folks really wanting to chat. They're lonely, they're reaching out."

Sawyer-Manter said that COVID-19 emergency aid programs, which temporarily relaxed restrictions and criteria on how agencies like hers could get meals to seniors, have revealed thta the need for older Americans is much greather than anyone realized.

"It's about doubling everybody's caseload in terms of who needs our assistance with nutrition, and what we're also finding is that many of them could actually meet the traditional Older Americans Act guidelines."

Sawyer-Manter says the agency is making a special effort to connect seniors with volunteers who can offer social interaction over the phone.

Other issues for older Americans that the panel identified include poor internet access, and a lack of technical knowledge for connecting to telehealth and virtual visits.

Advocates say the pandemic has had special impacts on seniors, with outbreaks in care homes and because seniors are disproportionately more likely to develop serious illness from the disease.

Those risks have also led facilities to ban visitors, which the panel reported as especially problematic in memory care facilities, AS costs increase BECAUSE  family members are no longer able to assist with hands-on care.