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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.

Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School.  Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.