Protecting the vulnerable: Senior nutrition programs make changes amid COVID-19 fears

After closing unexpectedly on Monday, the senior nutrition program Project Heart will re-open Tuesday at 11 a.m., offering only carry-out and delivery options to protect vulnerable senior citizens from exposure to COVID-19. Michelle Charles/Stillwater News Press

Senior nutrition programs are a big part of many senior citizens’ lives, providing them with a tasty meal and an important social outlet. But to protect senior citizens, one of the segments of the population most vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19, dramatic changes are being made to how those meals are served.

After closing suddenly on Monday, Project Heart has developed a plan to continue serving the people who depend on it.

Beginning Tuesday, the program, which usually serves about 75 meals each weekday in its dining room at 312 W. 9th Ave., will strictly be providing carry-out service and home deliveries for at least the next two weeks but probably longer.

In-house dining has been discontinued at all Project Heart sites in Oklahoma, Stillwater program manager Janet Verner said. Her clients have let her know they are not happy about the change because socializing there is an important part of their days.

“It’s nourishment for the mind and the body,” Verner said. “… Being in your house 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a strain on a person, especially a senior citizen.”

Project Heart will continue to follow the menu it has already announced but volunteers will now box the meals and carry them to people’s cars. The service will be available 11 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. 

In addition to converting dining room meals to carry-out, Project Heart will continue delivering meals as usual to people who can’t leave their homes.

Project Heart volunteers usually deliver about 42 meals a day, she said.

Verner said she’s not sure if all her regular volunteers will be able to help, given general health concerns. She might need more help to ensure everyone who needs a meal gets it.

That’s vitally important because that meal might be the only thing some of Project Heart’s clients eat, whether they lack transportation to buy food or the strengths to stand up and prepare a well-balanced meal for themselves, she said.

But Verner says it’s even more important to ensure a volunteer isn’t inadvertently spreading illness to someone who will become critically ill.

“We’re really trying to keep our seniors safe and fed,” she said.

The Mobile Meals program operated in cooperation with Stillwater Medical Center is also making changes to keep its clients safe by limiting personal contact, program director Carolyn Hungers said.

The program delivers 101 meals each day to homebound senior citizens.

Mobile Meals will be adopting a strategy of asking clients to meet the driver outside so volunteers don’t take a chance of carrying the virus into their homes.

If the person can’t come outside and the driver has to enter their home, the volunteers have been instructed to maintain a distance of six feet and drop off the meal quickly.

They’re being told to make minimal conversation, to reduce the risk of transmitting illness.

That won’t be easy for the clients or the volunteers, because they might normally spend 20 minutes talking with their favorite clients.

The drivers will also be wearing gloves to further protect the clients.

Hungers said Mobile Meals is sending notices to inform both clients and drivers of the new policies. They will also receive a chart explaining the symptoms of COVID-19.

Hungers says it will be challenging with the Oklahoma State University students who make up a sizable portion of her volunteer work force gone for spring break. But she’s not able to plug new people in easily because they have to be trained.

Mobile Meals is not able to take on any new clients at this time because SMC is already under strain as it prepares to address the pandemic. But Hungers says people have volunteered to help in any way needed, even offering to do grocery shopping for people if the Mobile Meals service is affected or has to shut down.

She hopes it doesn’t come to that but is heartened by what she has seen so far.

“Man, the community has been stepping up,” she said.

Twitter: @mcharlesNP

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