PROVO, Utah – One of the most impacted groups of people during the COVID-19 pandemic has been seniors, and in turn, the Utah County Senior Companion Program has faced some challenges as well.
The free program pairs low-income seniors, within 200% of the poverty income guidelines, with homebound or socially isolated individuals. The program’s clients are typically seniors, depending on the situation, who will watch movies, play cards, bake pies and more with their volunteer companions.
Along with the companionship, the clients are offered transportation anywhere except religious or political activities. Lastly, the program offers respite for caregivers, allowing them to have a break from their duties with the client.
“A majority of our clients are on their own,” said Victoria Chelossi-Royeton, director of the program. “We have individuals that literally have nobody, we have individuals that might have family but they can’t help, and then we have the ones with caregivers. We too often, though, see people that have nobody. COVID-19 really caused a problem with that because if someone is on dialysis, they now have no transportation because COVID-19 has shut everything down. What are they going to do if they have no family that will take them?”
When the pandemic hit, one of the biggest challenges the program faced was that many clients of the program were lost. Some of them through death, some through nursing home assignments.
With hospice partners closing down as well, more clients were lost. Add in the fact that many volunteers were lost and the program had some challenges to get through. It was left with half of the resources it had prior to the pandemic.
“We had to get back to serving because we were getting phone calls where people had no one to take them to get dialysis, treatments, see specialists, or get groceries,” Chelossi-Royeton said. “We had to find a way to get back to at least the transportation end of it. That was the first part of our services that we tackled.”
A couple of months into the pandemic, shower curtains were installed in cars to be used as sneeze guards. Volunteers began transporting clients once again, with the requirement of masks, and other volunteers would run errands for the clients.
While the purpose of the program is to get individuals out of the home, the basic needs of those clients had to be met so the program adapted. Hotspots and tablets were given out to offer video calls that served as a respite for caregivers. It helped out to some extent, according to Chelossi-Royeton, and volunteers would read a book or chat with clients using those tablets.
While the service is back in place, it is not back to 100% and the tablets have had a big impact on the program.
The big theme for Chelossi-Royeton through this tough time for the program has been adaptability.
While she said that the running joke involves seniors not liking change, it was necessary given the circumstances.
“So yes, we had to use a lot of adaptability and flexibility,” Chelossi-Royeton said. “I honestly think that our seniors came out of it almost better. Anytime you can learn and grow it is a positive experience, but just getting them started was a challenge.”
Through this adaptability, not only did the clients benefit but the volunteers and program as a whole benefited from it. The mental and physical health of the volunteer and clients increased, helping to give them a purpose, according to Chelossi-Royeton.
While the pandemic did bring up some challenges for the program, Chelossi-Royeton said that she believes it proved why the program is what she calls, “the best-kept secret in the valley.”
As for the next steps moving forward, the program is hoping to recruit clients and volunteers through booths at local events. The plan is to diversify partnerships moving forward to make sure that if another sudden event takes place, the program will not be in the same position as it was due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When asked about getting back to normal, Chelossi-Royeton chuckled and said that normal has been forever changed, not only for the program but for society.
“We have gotten 90% back in the homes, but masked up,” she said. “As far as the masks go, we are following the trends of the state, the nation, and locally. With the hospice agencies, it’s all about building community partnerships. That’s a matter of figuring out who we want to partner with, reaching out to them, and helping them understand who we are. With the clients and volunteers, we have signed up for the Spanish Fork Fiesta Days so we will be out there. It’s taking what we have, the resources that we have, and building upon them. Really getting the word out there that COVID-19 didn’t kill us, we’re still alive.”