Yesterday, Michele Rodriguez, Program Director of Older Adults at University Settlement, submitted testimony to the NYC Council hearing on COVID and Seniors: Protecting Older Adults in the Community. Here’s what she had to say:
February 17, 2021
Dear New York City Councilmembers of the Committee on Aging, Committee on Health, and Committee on Technology,
My name is Michele Rodriguez, and I am the Program Director for the Neighborhood Center and Social Club at University Settlement, a 135-year-old community-based organization serving over 40,000 children and adults across Manhattan and Brooklyn. I am submitting testimony for the hearing on COVID and Seniors: Protecting Older Adults in the Community
We began 2021 hopeful that mass vaccinations could help our older adults, who have been deeply impacted due to their vulnerability to Covid-19, return to something close to normalcy in their day-to-day lives. Our elders, to whom we owe so much, have spent nearly a year now in extreme isolation and daily fear of a deadly virus. Their schedules and lives have been utterly disrupted, and as a generation, they were less fluent with technology and virtual social engagement.
And yet, as the month of January brought vaccines to NYC, we experienced frustration and confusion with a distribution rollout that relied so heavily on online registration for appointments. Considering the first phases of access rightly included our older adults, we were surprised that the state and city did not anticipate the difficulties so many of our older adults, particularly the ones with the fewest economic resources and those without English language fluency, would have with online registration.
Now, a month after the vaccine distribution has begun and our Governor has continued to add eligible groups, many of our elders have still yet to receive vaccine appointments, let alone vaccinations. Some are mistrustful of mass vaccination sites, preferring to be vaccinated by their primary care doctors or worried about leaving their homes. And others have become so frustrated that they are no longer seeking them, choosing to wait until there are more vaccines so they do not need to spend anxious hours on the phone, waiting to see if there are available slots.
To protect our older adults in the immediate future, we must prioritize ways to get them vaccinated. We must recognize and respond to their specific concerns. Along with many other community-based organizations, University Settlement has requested to serve as a vaccination site. We believe that we can quickly and safely help the city reach and vaccinate more seniors; our participants regularly tell us that they trust our staff where they do not trust mass vaccination sites. As we are a NYCHA senior center, and many of our locations serve immigrant communities, allowing US to be a point of distribution is an issue of equity.
Simultaneously, we need to help educate our older adults about the vaccine. Increasing access will only be useful if people are willing to get vaccinated, and we worry that our older adults have been susceptible to misinformation—both about the vaccine and its safety and about where to access the vaccine. We have done our best to encourage our older adults to talk with their doctors and to read CDC guidelines, but misinformation has and will continue to dissuade people from getting vaccinated.
Since we know that vaccine supply is limited, we need also to have more testing sites across our Lower East Side neighborhood. Currently, we do not have consistent testing sites within reasonable walking distance for elders around our location at 189 Allen. The testing locations on the LES are further east and south. In light of the new, more virulent strains and the recommendations for double masking, we need to continue distributing masks as well.
We also need to consider our older adults’ physical health outside of vaccine access. We know that this year of mostly indoor isolation is dangerous for mental health, but it also affects physical health. Our older adults need to exercise daily to stay healthy and fit; physical fitness is imperative for mental acuity as well. Many more participants complain about backaches & knee pain because they don’t exercise or move around as much. Pre-Covid, many of our older adults in the Lower East Side area would take regular walks around the neighborhood. Now, due to store closures and fewer pedestrians, our older adults feel less comfortable walking around the neighborhood. There are fewer bodegas open where familiar faces would call out to them and say hi; there are no longer any accessible indoor neighborhood gathering points. In particular, our Asian and Asian American seniors are terrified of the rise in hate crimes. Our older adults must feel safe in their neighborhoods. Simply because stores or even senior centers are closed does not mean that the neighborhood is closed.
We should also take this opportunity to reflect on what we have learned about serving our older adult community in this time of unexpected crisis so that we can have plans in place for any future crisis. For example, we know that the rapid shift to virtual events and socialization left behind many older adults whose daily lives were rooted in in-person interactions. Our older adults tend to receive their news and information less from online sources and more from their peers, our staff, or via television. Though we do call our older adults for regular wellness check-ins, without senior centers or being able to congregate in buildings, many of them no longer have a centralized place to access vital, including public health, information. As vaccination may take months, we should start to plan ways to safely distribute information to older adults in a format that would reach them—whether this is through outdoor tabling at their buildings or direct mailings in multiple languages.
We also need to find how to better ensure older adults are technologically connected. This is in part an issue of hardware—ensuring that all older adults have access to laptops, tablets, and internet. But it’s also about teaching them how to feel comfortable navigating and learning technology on their own. We need more instructive classes that move and are taught at a pace needed for older adults to really learn.
We believe that including CBOs like University Settlement in the vaccine rollout and recovery process will be beneficial to all our communities, but especially our older adults. In addition to becoming a vaccination site, we feel that with more flexible programming, we could be safe sites of information, health materials, and essential goods distribution as well. For example, we currently provide meals to seniors direct to their homes. However, if we were able to do grab-and-go, we could provide health information, masks, and calendars of programming alongside meals. We would allow seniors to feel more ownership in their day and provide one-on-one interaction, which would also help their mental health.