While the COVID-19 lockdowns have undoubtedly saved lives, they have also increased social isolation for older adults in our community. In addition, the tightening economy has caused unprecedented hardships for people who have never needed help before. In response, new COVID-19-related services are being offered through local, state, and federal agencies. Yet connecting these services with older adults who aren’t aware of them remains a challenge.
“Benefits have increased,” said Suzanne Schweiger, a Geriatric Care Manager with Jewish Family Service. “We’re more likely to have funding available to give people help during this time of COVID, versus in the past.” The nature of this added assistance varies, but it tends to focus on food and housing. “The government has increased a lot of their benefits—specifically with regard to food assistance,” Schweiger said. “Because they are living on social security and usually have a difficult time making ends meet regarding paying their utility bills and rent.”
Tenants’ rights and housing benefits have also expanded, according to Lainey Dugan—manager of Jewish Family Service Barbash Family Vital Support Center. “There is a moratorium on evictions right now; that’s a health declaration from the CDC,” she said. “If you aren’t paying your rent, you can’t be evicted now.” But Dugan advises people to get educated on the details of these moratoriums. “Back rent is still going to be owed at some point, so if somebody needs rent assistance, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest not paying,” she cautioned. “They should contact AgeWell Cincinnati first to see if they’re eligible for our services. If they are, we’re here to help them get what they need.”
“People can lose benefits if they don’t stay up to date on the eligibility requirements for various programs, so there’s been a growing need for me to help my clients maintain the benefits they have—as well as help them apply for additional benefits they could be eligible for.”
— Suzanne Schweiger
The lockdowns have impacted housing in other ways, said Schweiger, who helps clients find alternative living arrangements, when necessary. “If somebody has to move to a new apartment, assisted living facility, or a nursing home, COVID-19 has added anxiety to the process,” she said. Not only must individuals forego in-person assessments and on-site tours (these are now done “virtually”), but they face tough, new restrictions regarding who can and cannot be accepted into a residence. Even if they are permitted entry, they must socially isolate in their new home for two weeks, making the role of a social worker all the more critical. “It’s not always about programs and benefits,” said Schweiger, “sometimes it’s just about a familiar face.”
It is impossible to access any of the newly offered benefits, however, if one doesn’t know they exist. “The whole virtual technology aspect with older adults—it’s challenging,” Schweiger acknowledged. To counter such struggles, agencies and governments are rethinking what defines a benefit. “We are trying to develop more creative ways to keep individuals from feeling socially isolated,” Schweiger explained. “We’ll teach someone how to leverage the use of their computer, if they have one. If they don’t, as their care manager, I can share my computer during my home visits.”
Mayerson JCC 60 & Better Program Manager Melissa Shrimplin faced similar challenges when the lockdowns threatened the benefits older adult members receive through 60 & Better programming. But when she expanded the offerings online, Shrimplin soon realized that the passion to maintain social engagement was stronger than any technological barriers her members confronted. “It was wonderful to see our members thrive—enjoying online programs and connecting to our 60 & Better JCC community,” she said. “You can learn new technology at any age and enjoy it.”
Dugan believes another way to overcome barriers is spreading awareness. “I know about all of these resources because I’m a social worker,” she said. “But people who are in that middle-income range don’t necessarily know who to call for help. They may not think they are eligible for specific benefits because they believe they make too much money to qualify. We’re realizing these are difficult times and that people weren’t prepared to go through their savings, so right now we’re expanding our reach and are here to support anyone in need.”
Information about benefits is especially important when it comes to our workforce. Given 2020’s economic turmoil, workers are seeking unemployment and career guidance for the first time. In response, job-sourcing agencies like JVS Career Services have innovated to provide extra help for clients during this pandemic. “We’ve been able to swiftly realign our business structure to put a greater focus on job seeker services and career coaching,” said JVSCS CEO Joni Burton. “And we are actively preparing to help more individuals, as needs will likely escalate in the near future.”
Another effect the coronavirus lockdowns have had on benefits is misinformation and confusion. Schweiger claims that many of her clients—who knew the ins-and-outs of their plans before the outbreak—are now bewildered. “People can lose benefits if they don’t stay up to date on the eligibility requirements for various programs,” she said. “So there’s been a growing need for me to help my clients maintain the benefits they have, but also help them apply for additional benefits they could be eligible for.” Dugan thinks providing this kind of heightened vigilance is what defines the role of a social worker. “This is exactly what being a key part of the community safety net is all about.” she insisted. “Particularly during a crisis. If people need support, they should never be afraid to ask for it. We’re here to help people navigate the system and get connected with benefits. We will do our best to help in any way possible.”
If you or a loved one could benefit from COVID-19-related resources that help with housing, rent, food assistance, and more—please reach out to AgeWell Cincinnati. The experts at AgeWell Cincinnati can connect you to 68 services through one number: 513-766-3333.