- Author: Mary Blackburn, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor for Alameda County
In the U.S., the holiday season of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year seems to be a nonstop race to the end of the year. Gathering to exchange gifts and eat special food and bountiful meals are common ways we celebrate. But the new ‘Grinch' of the season, COVID-19, prevents us from gathering with elders and other people outside of our households.
“We've asked the most vulnerable in our culture to shelter, and now they are the most isolated and most in need of seeing people,” said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC San Francisco.
Historically, elders in many cultures have special places in the hearts of families during the holiday period of thanks, well-wishing, giving and remembering.
Elders play a major role in passing on oral family history and showing how to prepare cultural or traditional family foods, favorite recipes and other novelties handed down from one generation to the next. In contemporary society, extended-family households are rare so millions of seniors are living alone. Some elders have the financial capability and support systems to enjoy fulfilling experiences during the holidays, as much as the pandemic allows. Others will spend time lacking the basics — food, warmth and conversation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published some considerations with tips to prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the season – stay home and avoid unnecessary travel. The best way to help keep friends and loved ones safe is to celebrate at home with immediate household members or connect virtually.
Seeing someone nourishes the soul
UC Cooperative Extension collaborates with local public and private community-based organizations and groups to serve senior residents.
As charter member of the Alameda County Community Nutrition Action Partnership (CNAP), inaugurated in 2006, UC Cooperative Extension coordinates with the Alameda County Health Department, Area Agency on Aging, Alameda County Social Services Agency, Alameda County Department of Education, Alameda County Food Bank and others.
During the pandemic, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC supervisor Tuline Baykal and community educators Max Fairbee and Leticia Christian continue to provide nutrition information to community members, inserting into food bags recipes, nutrition information and exercises that can be done at home. Max Fairbee, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC educator has also volunteered to deliver food bags to residents at a senior housing site.
“The food bags were hefty in the beginning, but are smaller now with less items available at the Food Bank,” observed Fairbee. “Still, they usually get some fresh produce, some canned fruit or veggies, bread, potatoes, onions, eggs (sometimes) and meat (sometimes). Spectrum Community Services also has provided emergency relief food boxes which contain non-perishable items (including canned tuna) generally once a month.”
The food bags are delivered without contact with the elders.
“We knock or ring the doorbell, announce we are dropping off food and leave it in a safe spot near their door for them,” he explained. “The seniors stay inside their homes, but they are happy and so grateful to see the volunteers and staff. I think that seeing someone actually means more to them than the food itself.”
Food and family top the holiday wish list of vulnerable seniors
In November 2020, CalFresh Healthy Living UC educators asked low-income housing site coordinators and center directors what seniors in their complexes and centers would appreciate most for the holiday season.
Their desires are very basic to daily living. The seniors suggested the following:
COVID-19 prevention: Hand sanitizer, gloves
Food: A traditional holiday meal, Safeway gift cards; fresh produce, vegetarian meal, pumpkin pie
Celebration: cookie box, fruit box, dried fruit box, nuts.
Family: Having immediate or extended family visit
Clothing: Warm blankets and warm clothing
How can we honor and assist seniors?
Consider sending meaningful holiday messages to seniors. Let the seniors in your community know it is to them we owe our lives, our survival, our respect and our gratitude.
Families and friends: Call elders living alone to ask about their well-being. Having a conversation with them in person – while standing outside their door, distanced and wearing your mask – helps keep them connected. Offer to assist them, using all COVID-19 precautions. Make time to shop for them to ensure they have their medicine and food that is safe and healthful, in small portions for one or two people, and easy to prepare or heat. See that their refrigerator is clean, set at the right temperature, and free of outdated food. They may need help putting out the garbage, cleaning and sanitizing the kitchen, and doing laundry. Let them know you are someone to call if they need immediate help.
Caregiving: Caring is the operative word. Treat seniors with patience, respect and understanding. Let them know they are worthy of the care you give.
With the COVID-19 constraints, underserved and vulnerable groups are facing an even greater crisis, especially with access to health services, housing, food and financial support. This holiday season and throughout the year, I encourage you to reach out to our elders. If you don't have money to spare, you can give emotional gifts. Your attention, conversation and compassion will be appreciated.
When COVID-19 restrictions ease, UC Cooperative Extension will resume educational activities where elders can socialize and be recognized when they participate in gardening, nutrition, physical activity and safe food handling classes. We have seen success in training elders as “wellness ambassadors” to encourage their neighbors to join our activities to address isolation and communication issues.