Like many families, my parents are over 65, and were eligible for their COVID-19 vaccine in January. The day my folks were eligible, around five o’clock, my mom called exasperated that she couldn’t get an appointment through the telephone and the website was difficult to navigate. Consequently, I kept calling the hotline and refreshing the website for an hour. Eventually, I got through to an operator and my parents signed up. My parents are fairly tech savvy people, so it naturally begged the question, how are we going to get older adults vaccinated, especially ones who are not comfortable with computers? But more broadly, how has the pandemic changed seniors’ relationship with the internet?
According to the Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), 22 million seniors lack broadband internet at home. Just take a second and let that number sink in. Even before the pandemic, try and think about your home life without access to broadband. Now, throw in the pandemic, and it really makes you wonder how these seniors were able to take care of life’s necessities. This statistic might help explain why 25% of seniors are “socially isolated,” with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeling social isolation a “serious public health risk.”
It’s not just social interactions which have been disrupted because of the pandemic. Life’s daily routines like shopping and going to the doctor have moved online. The market research firm NPD Group’s Checkout Tracking reports that seniors in 2020 spent 60% more money online than they did in the previous year.
Obviously, getting seniors registered online for the vaccine brings its own set of challenges, even for those with easy internet access. Becky Preve from New York’s Association on Aging reports that seniors often lack email addresses, printers and are resistant to sharing personal health information over the web. All of this makes registering older Americans through the internet problematic. Regarding the phone, many seniors are hearing impaired, making phone calls difficult.
Fortunately, there has been both a government and nonprofit response. Last year New York City distributed 10,000 tablets to seniors with complimentary training, and the State of Georgia’s Division of Aging Services used money appropriated in the CARES Act to get older adults connected to the internet. Nonprofit organizations like OATS trained 48,000 older Americans on navigating the internet throughout the pandemic. Recently, local Area Agencies on Aging assisted with signing up for vaccines. Also, New York’s Rockland County arranged a call center, allowing older adults to speak with an operator that places them on a vaccine waiting list and arranges transportation to the appointment. “Most of my seniors, especially my older, older adults, are very scared, anxious and frustrated with the inability to register unless they had a computer,” said Tina Cardoza-Izquierdo, the county’s aging office director. She indicated the office was, “getting inundated with calls from seniors who really didn’t know what to do and where to turn.”
Recently, OATS and the Humana Foundation released a report, “Aging Connected: Exposing the Hidden Connectivity Crisis for Older Adults,” that examines why millions of older adults still remain without the internet. Factors like disability, education level, geography, health status, immigration, income and race are important factors in determining connectivity for seniors. The report states:
“We found, using the most comprehensive data sets available and the most experienced researchers conducting analysis, that lack of home broadband correlated strongly with virtually all major categories of socioeconomic inequality. If you are over 65 and lack a high school diploma, live in poverty, are non-White or foreign-born, live alone, suffer from poor health or physical disability, are female, or live in a rural area, then digital privation is likely added to any burdens you endure. In a nation committed to promoting equal opportunity for our citizens and seeking to redress past and continuing injustices, the technology gap stands out as a force that divides us, leaving millions of vulnerable older adults without many of the benefits of the digital age.”
The report outlines four ways to bridge the digital divide with seniors. They suggest 1) Increasing awareness about the internet’s value 2) Prioritizing social equity and inclusion 3) Expanding affordable internet and 4) Producing programing tailored for older adults.
At the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services we advocate on behalf of our senior housing community on Capitol Hill. During our recent meetings we have been promoting internet expansion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) affordable senior housing community. Specifically, we are requesting $100 million dollars to expand senior internet connectivity in 3,300 communities. We believe this funding will help residents better connect with medical providers, family, friends and building staff. Fortunately, some of B’nai B’rith’s sponsored properties have already been able to get internet throughout the buildings. For example, in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Tucson, Arizona, our properties have building-wide Wi-Fi, enabling residents to connect their phones, tablets, computers and televisions to the internet. In Tucson, residents are able to check out laptops from the office and use them from the comfort of their own apartments.
Everyone should have access to broadband internet. The web has become a necessity and not a nicety. The pandemic has spotlighted the digital divide for seniors regarding internet connectivity. Hopefully, as we emerge from the pandemic, seniors will be afforded more opportunities for better internet access.
The past year has been difficult for everyone. Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries have all been scaled back because of the pandemic. People have searched everywhere for hope. Then in December, the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the United States. Finally we could see light at the end of the tunnel and every day the light has grown stronger.
Unfortunately, people are always ready to take advantage of good news. Last year I wrote a blog called “COVID-19 Senior Scams: Yes It Can Get Lower,” outlining how seniors during the pandemic are more susceptible to scams. Currently, we are racing to vaccinate everyone, and seniors rightfully have been one of the first in line. While this is great news, vaccinations have created opportunities for scams. For example, scammers are approaching older Americans offering early access to the vaccine, requesting payment for access and claiming they can send the vaccine directly to their homes. Seniors should be aware that these “claims” and “offers” are signs of scams. Also, scams are being furthered through text messages, social media platforms, house visits and phone calls.
Over the past couple of months, government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have all issued warnings advising people of COVID-19 vaccine scams. On Feb. 19 the CDC released guidance called “What Older Adults Need to Know about COVID-19 Vaccines” that stated, “If anyone asks you to pay for access to vaccine, you can bet it’s a scam. Don’t share your personal or financial information if someone calls, texts or emails you promising access to the vaccine for an extra fee.”
In Maine, the state’s CDC reported people have been impersonating agency employees claiming to be contacting them about contact tracing or to double-check vaccine appointments to fraudulently request Social Security numbers. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maine released a statement in January that scammers were trying to use the vaccine as an excuse to get access to people’s money, Social Security numbers and other personal identifying information.
“These scammers are ruthless and relentless, and everyone needs to have their guard up,” said U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank. “People here in Maine, particularly the elderly, are desperate to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, and the con artists are exploiting that desperation to get access to their money and personal information.”
At B’nai B’rith, our training programs have provided information on scam awareness. For example, during the pandemic we relayed and explained government guidance from various federal agencies on scams associated with the vaccine, stimulus payments, contact tracing and testing. As a sponsor of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) senior housing across the country it’s important we communicate the most updated information to buildings for the betterment of residents.
Hopefully, sooner than later everyone can get back to spending time with family and friends. However, in the meantime let’s all be vigilant against people who are taking advantage of the pandemic, especially now with our country taking a turn for the better. Plus, it can never hurt to call your senior loved ones and remind them to be a little more aware of what’s going on.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, federal, state and local governments have been instituting eviction moratoriums to stop people from becoming homeless. While I commend these efforts, what about the people who are already homeless? At B’nai B’rith we sponsor senior housing, so naturally I’m curious about how prevalent homeless seniors are across the country.
The Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) shows there are over 170,000 older adults (55+) who are homeless. These numbers are only expected to increase to 225,000 by 2026. Obviously, no one wants to see anyone homeless, and we want everyone to live in secure and safe housing. However, the problems associated with homelessness shouldn’t be examined as just putting a roof over someone’s head, but how appropriately health care and housing are intertwined.
The Homelessness Policy Research Institute reports homeless older adults are more likely to have health issues compared to older adults with housing. Research demonstrates ailments associated with seniors like frailty, cognitive impairment, urinary incontinence and vision impairment are higher in homeless older adults compared to people 20 years older with housing. Complicating matters, too many homeless seniors are not even aware they are eligible for Medicare and Medicaid benefits. According to the 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, only 10 percent of homeless adults in Los Angeles receive Medicare benefits. Think about all the undiagnosed ailments and health care problems plaguing seniors that could be treated from the outset. Furthermore, it’s generally cheaper to treat medical problems if they are diagnosed early.
So, what does this all mean?
The University of Pennsylvania published a report, “The Emerging Crisis of Aged Homelessness: Could Housing Solutions Be Funded by Avoidance of Excess Shelter, Hospital and Nursing Home Costs?” that tackles these very questions. The study concluded that investments in housing for older adults could save money by decreasing health care, nursing home and shelter costs. The report states:
“However, that large sums of public funding will go toward this crisis whether we act or not should motivate us to find the best and most responsible use of those funds. We can spend those dollars on potentially unnecessary hospital and nursing home days, or we can improve the quality of life of these vulnerable citizens, reduce the daily demands on hospitals and emergency departments to care for them, and relieve shelters of the burden for large-scale, aging-related care for which they are ill-suited.”
Furthermore, the study demonstrated that investments in a comprehensive housing strategy in New York and Los Angeles could save millions of dollars in services and produce positive investments.
The good news is that elected officials have begun to act. Last year, Minnesota created a program called “Housing Stabilization Services,” funded through Medicaid to help people find housing, negotiate leases and stave off evictions by identifying issues before they become too problematic. The goal for the program is to reach 7,000 people during the first three years. While this program is a good start, the Medicaid benefits don’t pay for rent.
Working at B’nai B’rith has made me very aware of the supply of affordable housing versus the demand in this country. While we regularly advocate to Congress for additional funding, our work doesn’t stop there. Our annual Housing Conference and Managers and Service Coordinators Meeting has provided training and panel discussions on welcoming new members to our housing community who previously were homeless. This came about because we recognized that the elderly homeless are at even more risk due to fragile health, etc. and wanted to make sure that we are reaching out to a very vulnerable population that can benefit from living in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assisted housing with service coordination available to them. Whether it’s dispelling stereotypes or connecting people with supportive services, we want everyone to feel welcomed and succeed in their new surroundings.
For example, Goldberg B’nai B’rith Towers in Houston and Pasadena Interfaith Manor have implemented the HUD homeless preference program that allows people without a home to more easily find a place to live. The staff at the buildings have treated these residents equally and the partnership with HUD has worked nicely. Also, caseworkers help prospective residents fill out paperwork, move into the apartments and assist with other daily activities associated with being a renter.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University reports that by 2038, 2.4 million more seniors who are considered very low income won’t have access to affordable housing. Numbers don’t lie. Senior homelessness is only going to become a bigger problem. This means money is being spent on services alone when housing is a more dignified and cheaper response. It’s time to take a more wholistic approach to providing services for people and see that issues like homelessness and health care are connected.
This is an exciting year for the Center for Senior Services (CSS), celebrating our 50th anniversary! B’nai B’rith sponsors Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) affordable housing across the country and currently our network comprises 38 buildings and serves about 5,000 people, making us the largest national Jewish sponsor of subsidized housing in the United States. B’nai B’rith’s housing footprint is across the country with buildings from New York to California, down to Florida and everywhere in between. We began providing HUD-assisted senior housing in 1971, when we opened our first sponsored building B’nai B’rith Apartments in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Not bad for fifty years!
Our housing network isn’t just about ribbon cutting ceremonies; it’s so much more. Mark D. Olshan, associate executive vice president of B'nai B'rith International and director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services, was responsible for expanding our annual Conference on Senior Housing and starting our onsite staff training for management professionals. These trainings are a great opportunity for the B’nai B’rith housing community to come together, network with each other, and hear from experts in the field on how to make our individual buildings the best they can be for our residents.
Mark is also responsible for starting the bi-annual Resident Leadership Retreat, operating since 1987. This retreat not only connects fellow resident leaders throughout the B’nai B’rith housing network but provides many tools to strengthen their communities back home. Residents participate in intensive, day-long workshops regarding resident councils and by-laws, address language and culture barriers, communicate with management, publish a newsletter, spend time with campers doing intergenerational programing and more.
Since these programs’ inception, Janel Doughten, associate director of the Center for Senior Services, has taken over coordinating them, adding to the content and therefore value to the participants. Under Janel and our late co-worker Gene Fogel’s leadership, the annual staff training was expanded from just the managers to additional onsite staff including assistant managers, activity coordinators and service coordinators and is now called the B’nai B’rith Managers and Service Coordinators Training. The retreat was also expanded from three days to seven. These changes have provided for significantly more programing and training for additional staff and residents to bring back to their buildings. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all training has moved to a virtual platform and has expanded to include a weekly Zoom meeting with the onsite building staff. Sharing ideas and best practices—especially during a nationwide emergency—is one of the main benefits of being part of our housing network.
During the year CSS will be highlighting our housing community through our media platforms. Expect video conversations between B’nai B’rith staff and volunteers discussing our organization’s rich history with affordable housing and the Resident Leadership Retreat. We intend on spotlighting our sponsored properties with fun facts and pictures, and interviews of our building’s board members and staff. Some of our staff and volunteers have been with the buildings since their creation. Also, it’s possible current B’nai B’rith residents could make an appearance to say hello and share their experiences.
Clearly there is lots to talk about and we are excited to share!
I have been privileged working at B’nai B’rith for the past four years, however my colleagues Mark and Janel have worked at the organization for 37 and 28 years, respectively. They rightfully talk about our senior housing program with pride. I hope during CSS’ 100th anniversary we will be able to highlight even more accomplishments in the name of affordable senior housing.
At B’nai B’rith we are a proud sponsor of affordable senior housing across the country. The goal of our Senior Housing Network is to provide seniors with quality, affordable housing in a secure, supportive community environment. What makes many of our buildings special are the service coordinators who work at the properties and connect residents with services in the community that allows seniors to age in place and not move to more costly facilities. Service coordinators play a vital role in the operation of our senior housing buildings, and their work has never been more critical than during the pandemic.
Prior to the virus, interacting with residents was a big part of service coordinators’ job. Obviously, given rules regarding social distancing, speaking with residents in close proximity has become problematic. Along with the limitations the pandemic has put on older Americans, the role of service coordination has dramatically changed. Recently, the American Association of Service Coordinators (AASC) and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies issued a report entitled “For Older Adults in Publicly Funded Housing During the Pandemic, Service Coordinators Help Build Resilience,” detailing the ways service coordinators’ jobs have changed because of the virus. Results are based on surveys from service coordinators in June and July who are members of AASC, with 79 percent of those surveyed being people who work with individuals over 62 years old.
For starters, service coordinators have been asked to perform work left vacant by in-person or personal care assistants that normally help residents with housekeeping, laundry and dressing. Because of the pandemic, this type of assistance has not been as accessible to residents. In addition, the study reported that many residents did not have enough food, medicine and household supplies to isolate for a week. Consequently, service coordinators worked to remedy these problems, in part by reaching out to local donor organizations and distributing resources once it reached the property.
The study further reports that 74 percent of service coordinators found their residents exhibited more loneliness and anxiety. One service coordinator who was surveyed wrote, “I have had many conversations with residents who are very lonely, anxious and tired of being isolated. A lot of our residents have positive attitudes during this time, but it has taken a toll on their mental/emotional health. [I have] observed residents who are sad and feeling desperate to socialize.” In response, service coordinators encouraged residents to decorate their doors and created writing contests. In addition, these coordinators scheduled activities like scavenger hunts and bingo that allowed residents to enjoy themselves and practice social distancing.
Samara Scheckler, postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and co-author of the study said, “For older adults living in publicly-funded housing, the early months of COVID-19 highlighted the critical role service coordinators played in maintaining the stability of resident housing and health through a period of major change. With interruptions in access to food, medicine, medical care, personal assistance and social supports, service coordinators filled in many gaps. They linked residents to community resources, managed public benefits, coordinated informal supports, facilitated residents’ access to and ability to use technology, communicated emerging public health guidance and knit together peer-support networks. Service coordinators ensured residents had access to the resources needed to manage their physical and mental health and maintain their housing through intense disruption.”
The study’s findings are similar to what the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services (CSS) is hearing from our Senior Housing Network. For instance, once the pandemic began we started a weekly B’nai B’rith Senior Housing Network Zoom call, and we held our yearly Senior Housing Conference and Managers and Service Coordinators Meeting virtually. These meetings provide a forum for property managers and service coordinators to share new ideas, hear success stories and speak directly with their colleagues across the country facing similar challenges. Also during these virtual meetings, issues such as social isolation were addressed using case studies and by providing resources through our website.
Furthermore, we were able to discuss COVID-19 related scams with our building staff. As an example, we showed an email where the sender claimed to be from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and offered five million dollars in exchange for personal identifying information. Hat-tip to our sponsored building, B’nai B’rith Chesilhurst House, for bringing this scam to CSS’s attention and giving us the opportunity to make our network aware of the problem. The Harvard/AASC study also reported service coordinators making their residents aware of scams during the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, B’nai B’rith service coordinators have worked to combat social isolation and partner with community organizations to provide food to residents. B’nai B’rith Apartments in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Covenant House in Tucson, Arizona have worked with community partners to ensure residents have groceries during the pandemic. Building staff have packed up food and other supplies, and then coordinated to have them distributed to residents while practicing social distancing. Regarding social isolation, staff have orchestrated activities like painting, exercises classes and bingo, all in a safe and distant manner. Service coordinators in these buildings have also spent hours with residents on the phone and try to communicate with the residents in person when feasible.
With all the work being done by service coordinators in federally subsidized senior housing, it’s time for Congress to appropriate additional money to be used for more service coordinators and supplies. Keep in mind only around fifty percent of federally funded senior housing buildings eligible for a service coordinator have one, and even buildings with one could use the additional help. Funds should also be allocated for increasing Wi-Fi accessibility that would enable service coordinators to speak with building residents while practicing social distancing, as well as make it easier for residents to participate in telehealth. Since the pandemic started, B’nai B’rith and AASC have advocated to Congress for maximum funding for affordable senior housing to combat the negative consequences of the pandemic. Alayna Waldrum, consultant to AASC said, “Service coordinators have been essential to the success of affordable senior housing across the country, and during the pandemic. It is imperative that Congress appropriates additional funding for resources to provide for more personal protective equipment, emergency service coordinators and increased Wi-Fi availability in senior properties. These resources would help alleviate some of the negative impacts of the virus and resulting isolation.”
Everyone who works with a service coordinator should take a second and appreciate the invaluable service they have performed during the pandemic. It’s not surprising that CSS has found our Senior Housing Network’s service coordinators’ experiences run parallel to the AASC/Harvard study. Ensuring residents have food, supplies, medicine and don’t suffer from social isolation are common themes. Service coordinators around the country have answered the call to best serve their residents during the pandemic and deserve our heartfelt gratitude.
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