By Natalie Hanson/Ethnic Media Services
PUBLIC health experts are urging California seniors to stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccine reminders, so they can rejoin their communities.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on older people, many of whom may have depended on congregate centers for socialization and care, and spent much of the pandemic in isolation to avoid illness or death.
Now, centers like Choice in Aging in Pleasant Hill, about 30 miles east of San Francisco, are encouraging seniors who get vaccinated to come back and hang out with their peers. In a briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services, clients of the center joined state health experts to share the relationships they experienced after being vaccinated.
There are about 272 community adult day health care centers in California, according to Susan DeMarois, director of the California Department of Aging. When they closed, hundreds of thousands of older adults across the state were isolated.
Things are changing, DeMarois said. “We know today that many Californians have been vaccinated and boosted, including those 50 and older who received their second shot.”
She added that this year, anyone eligible for MediCal should be prepared to renew their insurance and information.
“We don’t want anyone’s benefits or eligibility to be interfered with in any way.”
Dr. Sara K. Levin, a Martinez internist affiliated with Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, said that in the face of “a severe emergency and disaster that threatened lives,” the county is working to focus on the communities most marginalized and most vulnerable. She said older people living in communities and multi-generational families were at high risk of infection.
Now they are encouraged to use neighborhood vaccination resources to stay energized and end the isolation.
Debbie Toth, President and CEO of Choice in Aging, said at the start of the lockdown: ‘We were asking older people what we always told them never to do, which is self-isolate .
“We always tell older people not to self-isolate, it will impact your health,” Toth said. “And now we’re trying to come to terms with what happened.”
The center delivered meals to people’s porches, delivered Easter items and kept in touch with people.
Now it has fully reopened to vaccinate customers, which Toth says is vital for the health of the elderly.
“We need to be able to have a community to come together, to share our language, a culture, a friendship,” she said. “Vaccines and boosters are the only things that have made this possible for our aging population.”
Customer Bonnie Ronk said: “I was devastated when I found out we couldn’t come here.
She explained how she relied on the center for many services, adding, “I would tell people that if you have a disability…you can come here and get a lot of support and rehabilitation and everything.”
Parvindokh Salamat also described his experience during the pandemic saying, “I was so isolated. I was sad and upset.
Then she got vaccinated, and now “I see all my friends, they come here, and I was happy, because I was not alone”.
Toth said a group of women, including Salamat, were taking part in the center’s Farsi program, one of the main dialects spoken in Afghanistan. The program is segregated by gender, allowing women “to take off their headscarves and dance”, she said, adding that some carry trauma from life under the Taliban regime.
Now that they can visit the center in person again, they have knitting and crochet items to send to an orphanage in Afghanistan. Toth said the activity helped these women cope with the prevailing sense that they are “a burden” on their families and communities.
“They felt they were doing something to give back and that their lives had meaning,” she said.
Choice in Aging client Tsilya Tankove said through a translator that she was grateful to be back, calling it “a place full of life. I feel like I need people and people need me.
“It feels good to be back here and talking and learning new things,” Gilbert King added. “I’m grateful to be here. I like to play with my chihuahua dog and let him run around.
Rebecca Rodriguez said she misses talking to people in person, especially after losing her mother during the pandemic.
“My husband didn’t want me to be alone,” she says. So when her family was fully vaccinated, Rodriguez was happy to return to the center to play bingo, board games and color.
“It means the world to me. I have all kinds of friends here.
Kim McCoy Wade, senior adviser on aging, disability and Alzheimer’s disease for Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, implored listeners to consider the benefits of returning safely to their communities.
“Many older people lost their mobility during the pandemic and it’s so important to get moving again during the pandemic,” she said.
“Stay vaxxed, stay boosted, stay up to date. Make a plan to keep you informed, not just to save lives, but so we can reconnect.
Levin agreed that “not living in fear and isolation is what we all, as human beings, need to continue to thrive.”