OTTAWA COUNTY — When COVID-19 closed down life as we knew it in March 2020, business owners lamented lost sales, employees struggled with unexpected layoffs and families everywhere closed their circles. But one community felt forgotten by many: senior citizens.
When nonprofit Senior Resources of West Michigan began reaching out to seniors, caregivers and providers about future funding in 2022, the organization found needs have changed. Increased loneliness, lengthy waitlists and caregiver fatigue remain critical problems.
According to Senior Resources — which serves Ottawa, Oceana and Muskegon counties — Ottawa County has 60,334 residents over the age of 60. Five percent of those residents report either living with or having responsibility for their grandchildren. Five percent are below the poverty level.
Amy Florea, community services director with Senior Resources, said increasing costs are particularly frustrating for seniors looking to “age-in-place.”
“If someone has lived in their home for decades and wishes to stay there, we have supports and services to help them do that,” Florea said. “Sometimes, that means modifications, like not being able to get into a tub/shower or having laundry moved to the main floor. But costs are going up, and sometimes, they aren’t able to bear the cost of those modifications.”
For seniors living independently, isolation over the past two years has been crushing, at times.
“Loneliness is a big issue,” Florea said. “People who, for one reason or another, are home-limited, whether it was isolating during COVID and staying isolated as the pandemic moves to an endemic, or for physical or behavioral reasons — it’s resulting not only in an increased need for therapy, but for a service we call ‘friendly reassurance,’ which is a phone call per day or per week, or just stopping by to chat.”
When those home-bound seniors need home-based health services, they meet long waitlists.
“Older adults living at home are having a difficult time finding behavioral health services or gaining access to services,” Florea said. “If they want home therapy, or even virtual therapy, there’s a long waiting list due to capacity issues.”
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Florea has also seen an increase in requests for home-delivered meals, and a need for caregivers to catch a break.
“Caregivers have been especially taxed during COVID because a lot of supports in place were either paused or limited,” she said. “For example, if a caregiver took their senior to an adult day center a couple of days a week, they had a respite. They didn’t have that. Caregiving is a very, very difficult job.”
One possible source of respite is Evergreen Commons in Holland, a daytime center that seeks to build community among its senior members, many of whom live independently.
“We all need community – whether that’s in our home or outside of it,” the team at Evergreen Commons wrote in a collective email to The Sentinel. “The pandemic put great restrictions on both of these. What makes it more difficult for some older adults is the combination of living alone while managing multiple health issues and a limited support system.”
Evergreen Commons allows members to gather at its 75,000-square-foot main campus, The Wellness Place. Assisted care is also available at The Day Center of Evergreen Common — a service caregivers, in particular, appreciate.
“Caregivers have learned that having a support system, and options outside of the home, weigh more than indefinite isolation due to risks of leaving home during this pandemic,” Evergreen staff wrote. “The need for respite, and having a break from the daily burden of caregiving, is heightened when restrictions and limitations are in place.”
Members who have felt comfortable enough to return to Evergreen Commons share a sense of relief.
“Our members missed the community of our center — the friendships and a shared meal or card game — all those things that give people a sense of belonging and connection,” Evergreen staff wrote. “We have seen a return of many in the last year and there is a mutual joy in that.”
Suzanne Visser, director of care coordination and resources at Evergreen Commons, has an even greater respect for those connections now.
“It’s a new and deep respect for community and valuing relationships,” she said. “For us, as staff of Evergreen, I think we’ll never again take that community for granted.”
— Contact reporter Cassandra Lybrink at email@example.com. Follow her on Instagram @BizHolland.