Providing food, friendly calls to remind seniors they’re not alone

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For Lourdes Trevino, the Elvira Cisneros Senior Community Center in San Antonio is where she exercises, socializes with friends and where she met her husband Jose. It’s also where she receives a free lunch several times a week.

“Cisneros was the best thing that happened to our lives,” she says. “We’re blessed.”

But now, during the COVID-19 outbreak, the center is closed.

The pandemic has disrupted the daily lives of millions of seniors like Trevino. Research shows many are more vulnerable to social isolation and food insecurity than ever before. So, despite being closed, staff at Cisneros Center knew their work serving their members had to continue.

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“We’re still here for them. It’s a new normal for us, but we’re still taking care of our members,” says Audri Torres, the supervisor of the Elvira Cisneros Senior Community Center in San Antonio.

WellMed, part of Optum, operates Cisneros Center and ten other senior centers in Texas and Florida through its WellMed Charitable Foundation. The centers, which are free to anyone 60 and older, allow WellMed to offer more than medical care. They supply food and friendship and attend to members’ social and emotional needs.

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As social distancing guidelines went into effect, one of the first moves Torres and her team made, along with staff at eight of the other centers, was to start packing up meals to go. Those centers usually serve lunch and about 30% of their members count on that as their main meal of the day.

In the first five weeks after Cisneros Center closed, the staff there sent out 5,000 meals through drive-up services or delivery. That represents more than 600 seniors who are eating better and avoiding grocery stores. All told across nine centers, more than 32,000 meals have been packaged up and sent out or picked up.

At Cisneros Center, the meals are provided in partnership with the City of San Antonio and are made possible thanks to donations from WellMed employees and providers, along with a donation from WellMed founder Dr. George Rapier.

Now seniors like Trevino line up in cars — trunks open — outside Cisneros Center every Monday and Thursday morning. “It’s nice to see other people, even if you just wave from car to car,” says Trevino.

The staff looks a lot different than usual — they’re wearing personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. Even though Trevino can’t see the faces of the Cisneros Center staff, she knows they’re smiling.

“You can just tell,” she says. “They already know most of us. They don’t even need to get our names. They know who we are. It’s like a big family.”

The seniors drive away with a couple days’ worth of lunches and the knowledge that someone is looking out for them. Sometimes there’s a booklet of word search and sudoku puzzles included, too.

“It’s like a joy ride,” explains Trevino. “You’re getting out of the house, but you’re still in your vehicle, so you’re safe, plus you get your food and your goodies.”

Using technology to entertain, inform and connect

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Besides working to make sure those they serve are well fed, staff from the centers are also helping seniors stay entertained, informed and connected.

The staff helps members get on social media sites so they can communicate with family and friends and access resources from the senior centers. Torres says the strategy is working, “We started posting different workout videos, handwashing demonstrations, cooking classes, and members are tuning in.”

Trevino says these efforts are helping combat the isolation, as are the regular phone calls from senior center staff.

“It does get very lonely,” says Trevino. “It does get to you sometimes. You just have to try to be strong.”

Torres and each of her staff members call on 80–100 seniors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Not everyone answers,” says Torres, “but we’re leaving a voicemail, and then they’re hearing it and calling us back.”

It’s not uncommon for members to cry during the phone calls. “They feel alone, and we’re there cheering them on. We say, ‘It’s okay, you’re not alone, you have us here,’” says Torres.

Trevino says chatting with Torres is like talking to a daughter. “It makes your day. It just makes it.”

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