.Santa Cruz Groups Support Older Adults During Pandemic

Earlier this month, Santa Cruz County announced the opening of a new mass vaccination center in downtown Watsonville, and officially welcomed residents 65 years and older to sign up for their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

The new OptumServe site, located at the old City Hall at 250 Main St. in Watsonville, will be open Thursday through Monday from 9am-6pm and aims to vaccinate up to 210 people per day. An appointment is necessary to receive a vaccination.

It was created in partnership with the Santa Cruz Public Health Division and the City of Watsonville.

“We are extremely excited about this continued partnership,” said Jen Herrera, chief of Public Health.

Eligibility now includes people in Phase 1A, all county residents age 75 and older, and residents 65 and older who reside in the 95019, 95076 and 95077 zip codes, three areas of the county that have been heavily impacted by the pandemic.

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English and Spanish speakers who meet eligibility criteria can make appointments at myoptumserve.com/covid19 or by calling 877-218-0381. Residents 75 and above must bring proof of their date of birth. Those 65 and older must also have a proof of residence.

Both Herrera and County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel emphasized the importance of getting vaccines to the county’s older adult community.

“Older folks are much more likely to be hospitalized, and die if they get [the virus],” Newel said at last week’s press conference. “We feel strongly that this is the most important group to prioritize.”

“Vaccines administered to elderly residents are 300 times more likely to save a life than one administered to healthy adults under age 50,” county spokesman Jason Hoppin said in a press release. “Due to ongoing vaccine scarcity, vaccines administered out of order delay the delivery of vaccines to vulnerable populations, risking further loss of life.”

With nearly everyone sheltering at home to slow the spread of Covid-19, older adults have been more isolated from the community than ever. Lois Sones, Director of Elderday Adult Day Health Care, says she has seen a major decline in local older adult’s conditions during the pandemic.

“Senior isolation was already a problem before Covid,” Sones said. “But it’s quite shocking to see how many of our participants have declined in the past year. Not to mention, we’ve lost a number of people …. It’s very discouraging, heartbreaking.”

Sones and her team at Elderday, a program of Community Bridges, have been looking for ways to help. Last summer they launched the Senior Center Without Limits (SCWL), a program offering older adults free virtual classes, workshops and support.

The program recently received a $25,000 grant from the Joseph and Vera Long Foundation, which will help them expand their services, creating new classes and reaching more participants. A couple months ago, they also received a grant from the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County to purchase more hardware, such as Amazon Fire tablets for residents.

Overcoming the digital divide is one of the main goals of the Senior Center Without Limits. The program aims to make things as accessible as possible, but it has been a challenge.

“We’ve had lots of issues,” Sones said. “Many people don’t even have internet connection …. Some people who get so angry with the devices. It takes a lot of time and patience for everyone.”

Once a participant joins, they can sign in to a multitude of classes, from cooking and tai chi to art workshops and sing-alongs. The physical classes are especially imperative, Sones said, as older adults who are normally limited in their mobility are now even more inactive.

“They are stuck at home, they aren’t getting out and moving,” she said. “They aren’t able to do that small bit of activity they usually would.”

Tim Brattan, executive director of Grey Bears, a 48-year-old organization based in Santa Cruz, said he has also noticed the community struggling.

“Change is hard, but especially when you’re older,” Brattan said. “You’re set in your ways, you have a routine … and suddenly you can’t do those things. It’s a big concern.”

Grey Bears aims to improve the health and well-being of older adults in the community through food distribution, voluntarism, resource conservation and recycling. At first it sounds an unlikely combination, but Brattan explains that the focuses do intersect. 

For instance, the food the organization distributes is “rescued” from local markets and bakeries, orchards and gardens, and food banks. Any food they don’t use, they turn into compost, which they sell at the Grey Bears Thrift Store. In addition, they help refurbish old computers and other technology, reselling them at much cheaper prices.

“It’s about sustaining our community and preserving items that would otherwise go to waste,” Brattan said.

Grey Bears distributes about 36,000 meals a year. Its Healthy Food for Seniors program has about 55 driver routes throughout the county, sending food to about 1,400 older adults. People can also visit the headquarters to pick up bags of food and other items.

They have started online classes, too, some being their own and others with partner organizations. Their chair yoga classes, Brattan says, are especially popular—at least 150 people participate every week. 

Brattan says the classes are vital to keeping people connected.

“The isolation happening is hard on everyone, let’s face it—it’s not good at any age,” he said. “But particularly for our aging community. We’re seeing unprecedented levels of depression, a lack of hope. That’s why having some sort of social connection is so important.”

Brattan invites anyone who is interested to reach out to Grey Bears if they need anything.

“We’ve been here for 48 years now, we’re still going to be here tomorrow,” he said. “You can come here and feel safe, with distancing and masking, come if you want to volunteer, or just have lunch …. We’re here for you.”

With the vaccine continuing to roll out in Santa Cruz County, Sones said she sees a “light at the end of the tunnel,” but knows it will be a while before everyone can return to the Elderday center. Next month they are planning a drive-thru “friendship parade” and are currently accepting more people to their general program.

“Our goal is to keep people as engaged as possible, physically and mentally,” she said. “To give them hope.”


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