COA staff adjust to ‘twists, turns’ due to pandemic

Karen Noblit, senior benefits coordinator for the Westfield Council on Aging, stands next to the drop box outside of the Westfield Senior Center. (TINA GORMAN PHOTO)

WESTFIELD-The staff at the Westfield Senior Center has navigated the “twists and turns” created by the COVID-19 pandemic since the doors were officially closed to the public last March 17.

“When the pandemic hit one year ago and the doors to the senior center were closed to the public, all staff job descriptions went out the window,” said Tina Gorman, executive director, Westfield Council on Aging/Westfield Senior Center.

Gorman noted that the willingness of the Council on Aging (COA) staff to pull together for the collective good of the city’s older adults was “inspiring.”

“From daily meals to telephone reassurance, and everything senior-related in-between, job titles became blurred as the staff worked collectively to tackle a vast array of challenges,” said Gorman.

Gorman added that the “Personal Shopper” and “Phone Buddies” programs were developed to address the unique needs of some of the Companion Program clients, and all of the program participants have been called regularly to assure their safety and well-being.

Joyce Peregrin, Companion Program coordinator, has worked with some of the city’s most at-risk older adults since the pandemic began, noted Gorman.

“Joyce has been setting up grocery and pharmaceutical deliveries, recruiting and retraining volunteers for contactless food shopping, matching clients and volunteers in the Phone Buddies program, and making hundreds of telephone reassurance calls,” said Gorman, adding, “In the last six weeks, Joyce has become the COA point person for any and all COVID-19 vaccine issues.”

Since meals have always been a major attraction at the senior center, Gorman said in the past year the staff has prepared and distributed curbside more than 20,000 meals.

Joann Boucher, food services coordinator, and George Sfakios, kitchen assistant, switched from cooking meals served in the Great Room of the senior center to preparing take-out meals – “literally overnight” – notes Gorman.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, as older adults were avoiding trips to the grocery store, the number wanting curbside meals almost doubled from our usual lunchtime participants,” said Gorman, adding that presented several challenges.

“First of all, at the beginning of the pandemic, take-out containers were almost as scarce as toilet paper,” she said. “But Joann was resourceful in utilizing a variety of vendors and some old-fashioned creativity. She and George had to quickly plan a menu of take-out meals that could be reheated and then prepare them each day without the help of our usual kitchen volunteers.”

That dedication to service means that on most days both Boucher and Sfakios arrive at 5:30 a.m. or earlier.

“The day before Thanksgiving, this dynamic kitchen duo was at the senior center at 3:30 in the morning,” said Gorman.

Mary Lou Niedzielski, program director, also assists with all phases of the lunch program including daily registration, bagging meals, and outdoor curbside distribution.

“She has used her knack for creativity in planning and coordinating a wide variety of monthly special curbside events, and during the last year, she has worked with the city’s media systems specialist, Pete Cowles, to move fitness, educational, and entertainment programs and activities to cable Channel 15,” said Gorman.

Niedzielski also has been answering the telephone as well as the front door when a senior has a question or is picking up medical equipment.

Gorman noted that for city residents who have returned home from the hospital or a skilled nursing facility, 325 pieces of medical equipment have been loaned out, from wheelchairs, tub benches and shower chairs, to portable commodes, walkers and canes.

Gorman added more than 350 older adults were assisted via telephone during the Medicare Open Enrollment period by Karen Noblit, senior benefits coordinator.

“Karen managed the entire Medicare Open Enrollment period this year via telephone and e-mail, utilizing our newly purchased COA drop box,” said Gorman. “She assisted 350 seniors with their 2021 prescription drug plans.”

Noblit also offers ongoing help with health insurance, the Fuel Assistance Program, and SNAP benefits, as well as coordinates the monthly curbside Brown Bag food distribution program.

“Along with her co-workers, Karen assists with all phases of the lunch program including daily registration, bagging lunches, and outdoor curbside distribution,” said Gorman, adding, Karen also handles telephone and front door duty.

Essential employees also include Sandra Fisher, greeter; Mary Cohutt, clerk, and Joanne Ortegas, outreach coordinator.

“Providing crisis intervention, case management, and outreach services without entering someone’s home has been challenging,” said Gorman. “Joanne has mastered the art of assisting clients via telephone, curbside consultations, and outdoor visits. She has delivered food, incontinence supplies, and other essential items to those with no family in the area, and also helps with packaging the daily meals and traffic flow.”

Gorman said that Cohutt handles the daily lunch reservations, and has become the go-to person with managing “every conceivable” question, issue, and concern that seniors and family members have related to COVID-19.

“As she researched the answers to their questions, Mary developed several basic brochures that could be mailed out with information,” said Gorman, adding, “For the first time, she organized and coordinated our AARP tax assistance program.”

For Fisher who would normally greet seniors at the front desk, the past year has meant making almost 2,000 telephone calls to senior center participants.

“She provides a listening ear for those who are battling isolation or struggling with the loss of a loved one,” said Gorman, adding Fisher also has a variety of roles she steps into as well as continuing the well-being checks.

“She refers any seniors who seem to be particularly burdened with health or family concerns to Joanne Ortegas,” said Gorman.

While volunteers have always played an essential role in the day-to-day workings of the senior center, for safety reasons, initially the COA staff called on family members to assist with traffic flow during the daily meal and monthly Brown Bag distribution program.

“The last names of those who helped may sound familiar,” said Gorman, noting that Gary and Grace Gorman began assisting with traffic flow the very first day the COA offered curbside meals. “Together, they taped three fitness videos for Channel 15 and Grace created 70 handmade Mother’s Day cards which she personally gave out during a special curbside lunch.”

Gary Gorman has continued to offer “lighthearted greetings” twice a week to the lunch participants while he helps with traffic flow.

“Nick and John Niedzielski were recruited to help with Brown Bag and special curbside events,” said Gorman, adding, “Nick continues to assist with the lunchtime traffic flow every Wednesday.”

For eight months, Jake Noblit controlled the “tempo” of the Brown Bag program, added Gorman.

“The first non-family member to help out on a regular basis was Friends of the Westfield Senior Center board member Harry Rock,” said Gorman. “Harry volunteered to host the monthly COA educational series, ‘Westfield Council on Aging Presents.'”

“Joelle Thibido lives in Hampden Village and delivers up to a dozen COA meals to Hampden Village residents every day,” said Gorman. “Kathy Millas, Friends’ board treasurer and clerk, has also helped with a variety of special curbside events in addition to the monthly Brown Bag program.”

Barbara Martone, former kitchen volunteer turned pandemic “volunteer extraordinaire,” has also helped with “everything curbside.”

“In addition to daily lunches, Barbara has assisted with the drive-through flu clinic, the AARP tax program, bingo gift bag delivery, special curbside events and Brown Bag,” said Gorman.

Gorman said the past year has been filled with fear, loss, grief, loneliness and anxiety.

“But as a community,” she said, “we have also witnessed strength, kindness, creativity, compassion and resilience.”

For city residents with questions about any of the services offered through the COA, call (413) 562-6435 weekdays.

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