Area seniors have a resource they can count on to help them make sure they have nutritious meals and other help needed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen an increase in new older adults requesting meals,” said Darla Waldner, director for the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging, which serves seniors in 21 counties throughout northwest and west-central Minnesota, including Hubbard.

In Hubbard County, seniors receive meals from the Nevis Senior Center, Great Northern Cafe, River Heights Apartments and Court Apartments in Park Rapids or Zappy’s Cafe in Akeley.

She said providing meals during COVID-19 has been challenging. “The greatest impact has been on older adults, and that’s the population we serve,” she said.

“We fund both congregate (senior) meals and home-delivered meals through Older American Act dollars. We’re a grant administrator and contract with Lutheran Social Services to provide those meals. In rural communities, there are special challenges. Following state mandates to protect older adults who are at greater risk from the virus, congregate dining centers have been closed since March and will remain closed through at least the end of the year.”

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Instead, to-go meals or home delivery options are offered along with meals at the two diner’s club locations.

“Having the diner’s club option for those 60 and above is great for those seniors who are feeling isolated,” she said. “That isolation has really been impacting the people we serve. Getting out and eating with their peers and family has been a definite advantage.”

Staying in touch

“COVID has taught us a lot of lessons, especially about where we are vulnerable as communities,” Waldner said. “Isolation is something that we anticipated with COVID, but not to this degree.”

Caregiver service and support are also provided. “Park Rapids Living at Home received some of our caregiver funding,” she said. “We offered up our grantees a technology round of funding with money from the CARES Act to help maximize technology support, as they did with their iPads. We realize how important that connection is.”

She continued, “The other good thing is that in a state of emergency we are allowed to have funding as one pot of money so we could get it to the people with the greatest need. Our board made decisions to transition some of what had been used for classes to doing friendly visiting and check-ins. One entity did more than 700 check-ins. Other areas where seniors needed help were grocery and prescription deliveries. The person checking in would ask what they need. Places like Living at Home of the Park Rapids Area stepped in to fill those gaps. We have some resilient volunteers who were running groceries out to people in need or picking up prescriptions. In Hubbard County, especially, a real sense of community has always been there but it continues to surprise me the depth of people’s hearts to serve the elders.”

In rural areas, transportation can also be an issue for seniors who don’t drive. “Often elders don’t have any family members living nearby,” she said. “Both Hugos and Coborns have stepped up and done some special things to help older adults with groceries, especially those who don’t have the ability to shop online.”

Nevis site serving more seniors

Mary Dennis is the senior cook at the Nevis Senior Center. Four full-time staff and a fifth part-time person have been busy making sure area seniors have nutritious meals.

“We ship out to Park Rapids, Menahga Sebeka and then we have meal pickup here in Nevis,” she said. “We average anywhere from 80 to 100 meals per day. Here in Nevis, we’ve seen our numbers go up more with meal pickup than we had with congregate dining in the center before COVID. We also send out frozen meals for those who need them for the weekends so they can just heat them up Saturday and Sunday. I just had two new clients come on board yesterday. One of them said he really did appreciate the meals.”

Nevis has both paid employees and volunteers deliver around a dozen meals to those who aren’t able to come into the center to pick them up. They welcome donations of fresh garden produce.

“We can incorporate the produce into our meals,” she said. “We can slice fresh tomatoes into salads and we’ll find a way to use whatever we get from the garden.”

Cash donations are also welcome.

“Lutheran Social Services sends clients a contribution letter each month,” Dennis said. “If they can’t afford the full price suggested, they can just send whatever they can.”

For more information on receiving meals, including how to use SNAP benefits to pay for them, contact Lutheran Social Services regional manager Shaye Thompson at 320-630-8086 or Dennis at the Nevis Senior Center at 218-652-2022.

“I don’t know if people realize it, but these sites like Nevis, I sent staff there multiple times to help prep these meals, especially when we were doing 14 meals people could pick up at one time,” Waldner said. “It took a lot of round-the-clock food prep. I’m really proud of the effort there at the Nevis Senior Center. It has taken many hands to make this happen.”

Senior Linkage Line can help

“One of the resources available statewide to seniors is the Senior Linkage Line,” Waldner said. “A lot of people have been calling about food support and how to get their stimulus checks and we'll be busy with those calling for information about open enrollment in health plans starting Oct. 15.” Call 1-800-333-2433 to get connected to someone who can help.