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Local senior citizens moving toward normalcy

Widespread vaccinations allow Catholic Charities to reopen senior centers

MIAMI | Providing daily meals to South Florida’s elderly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic was relatively easy when compared with the challenges of offering them meaningful interaction.

That is the assessment of Iani Carvalho, regional director of Catholic Charities’ Elderly Services, which is starting to resume in-person congregate meal programming at select locations around the Miami Archdiocese and especially in Miami-Dade County. 

“Nutrition was the easy part of this — but maintaining socialization and activities for the elderly has been the real challenge,” Carvalho said, adding that the agency provided some elderly with personal electronic tablets to help keep in touch with them while senior citizen drop-in centers were closed this past year.

Catholic Charities began reopening some of those drop-in centers for lunch and social activities in July. 

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A high rate of COVID-19 vaccinations among the elderly in the area — despite a rising infection rate in Florida — has laid the groundwork for a greater return to normal this summer. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Aug. 4, 2021, update, 100% of Miami-Dade County residents 65 and older had received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared to 87.3% of those 12 years and older (the population eligible for vaccines). Changing guidelines from the CDC are also taken into account. 

“We will be rolling out the activity slowly. We are eager to let everyone socialize and get back to their dominos but some of them are not ready, so we are looking at ways to do that,” Carvalho said. 

The focus will be on some dozen congregate meal sites where Catholic Charities offers free meals for needy seniors in South Florida, and where, prior to the pandemic, those seniors could spend time together.

All of that came to stop when COVID became a reality, according to Peter Routsis-Arroyo, Catholic Charities’ CEO. He pointed out that the agency had to quickly re-tool services after the pandemic lockdowns began last spring. Catholic Charities moved to home delivery and in some cases maintained a seven-day-a-week schedule of meals. 

“For over a year we had to move the entire program to home base. Initially maybe we had about 600 seniors and in the span of moving to home base it went to 1,000 seniors daily,” he said. 

At the peak of the pandemic last year, Charities staff — dressed in gowns, gloves and masks — went knocking on doors to greet senior citizens who left a chair out in front of their door to receive the meal delivery. Delivery personnel had to stand six feet back, observe the senior take the meal and mark it as served. Charities staff also made routine phone calls to the elderly throughout the pandemic to keep in touch on a personal level. 

“The social isolation has been one of the biggest factors at this time period for the elderly, and as long as it is safe for them to do so we know they would love to get back together again,” Routsis-Arroyo said. “Knowing a good percentage of the elderly have been vaccinated... is allowing us to feel like we can begin to move back to in-person gatherings, with safety still a concern. There may be some seniors for whom it may not still be the right time.”

One of the first congregate meal centers to open, in mid-June, was Palmer House near Florida International University’s main campus in Miami, where over 90% of participating seniors indicated they had been vaccinated. The largest center is in the Allapattah neighborhood west of Wynwood.

Although Catholic Charities encouraged and educated its clients to seek COVID vaccination, the agency did not directly host vaccination events. But the Miami region in general made getting vaccinated a relatively easy process compared with other parts of the state and country. 

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities staff continue to follow CDC protocols, with staff required to wear masks when indoors at agency facilities, doing sanitizing and handwashing as needed, and providing face masks for clients who still need them. 

The centers provide mental and physical stimulation for seniors, allowing them to spend time with people their own age, talk, interact and enjoy activities in a safe, nurturing environment. 

“We can’t resume our dining as it was pre-COVID. We will enforce some social distancing so we may split our mealtime into two groups with an hour in between,” Carvalho said. 

The elderly, she added, were beginning to suffer from issues related to social isolation. Charities social workers realize that socializing with them is another necessary activity that accompanies meal service.

“That is what they are asking for. We have been calling them to ask them if they feel comfortable coming back in over the last two weeks and the reception has been very positive — the vast majority are ready to come back in person,” Carvalho said. 

The centers are designed for adults aged 60 and over seniors regardless of age, income or situation. 

FIND OUT MORE    

  • For information about Catholic Charities Elderly Services or to make a donation, contact Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami at 305-751-5203 or visit www.ccadm.org.
 

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