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Some services for elderly, who are most at risk for COVID-19, continue in Madison
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Some services for elderly, who are most at risk for COVID-19, continue in Madison

From the The COVID-19 pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest local news on the coronavirus outbreak series
John Hicks getting a meal

John Hicks takes a Meals on Wheels dinner out of a cooler on the porch of his Madison home after delivery by volunteer Rachel Desertspring, left. Meals on Wheels is still operating, but with special precautions. Before the outbreak, Desertspring would bring meals inside and chat in the kitchen.

With older adults at greatest risk for COVID-19 complications and prone to isolation from social distancing, meal programs and home health services are still being offered in the Madison area during the pandemic — with precautions.

Wisconsin nursing homes, some of which have had residents test positive for the new coronavirus, are grappling with a worker shortage exacerbated by a reduction in child-care services and a scarcity of protective equipment. To boost staffing, facilities are seeking permission to hire workers with less training than is typically allowed.

Some nursing homes or units that have closed are being considered as surge capacity for hospitals if needed, said John Sauer, CEO of LeadingAge Wisconsin, which represents nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Meanwhile, to stop the spread of the virus, operators are imposing strict visitor restrictions that are increasingly hard on families, Sauer said.

“There’s some really heart-wrenching stories of people who have visited their loved ones every day for the last two years, now not being able to do it,” he said. “Some tough choices are having to be made.”

Meals on Wheels has expanded its dinner program and should be able to add even more clients soon, said Brian Miller, CEO of Independent Living, a nonprofit that runs the evening program in the Madison area, which serves about 120 people. SSM Health at Home, which runs the lunch program, is also scaling up.

Volunteers are told to “sanitize your hands between stops, use objects such as your sleeve or pencil to ring door bells and open doors, and avoid physical contact with the clients,” according to an Independent Living email.

Restaurant delivery services are also available, but Meals on Wheels volunteers are encouraged to chat with clients and report unusual circumstances, such as someone not coming to the door, Miller said.

Rachel putting food in cooler

Meals on Wheels volunteer Rachel Desertspring puts meals in a cooler on the Madison porch of client John Hicks. Independent Living, which runs the dinner program in Madison, and SSM Health at Home, which runs the lunch program, have been serving more people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Your mom or dad is going to get checked in on each day and have some human interaction, even if it’s on the front porch, which during this time is pretty important,” he said.

‘Really important’

Sue Koening, who lives near Chicago, has been staying temporarily on Madison’s West Side with her parents, John and Joan Hicks, who are in their late 80s, after her mother recently got out of the hospital.

Koening, who plans to return to Illinois Thursday, said Meals on Wheels, which has served her parents for about two years, is especially valuable now.

“The consistency of having the nutrition coming in, the regular routine, is really important,” she said.

Unlike food pantries that offer free food to people with low incomes, Meals on Wheels charges a fee: $8.40 per meal. Funding from the United Way of Dane County, which was discontinued this year in a shift to helping more poor children and young families, previously covered subsidies for low-income clients, allowing them to pay half price, Miller said.

A new emergency fund at the United Way for COVID-19 may provide money to resume the subsidies, he said.

Home health care

SSM Health at Home, which typically delivers 300 lunches each day through Meals on Wheels, added more than 70 new recipients in the past week, spokeswoman Niki Anderson said.

The agency has closed its medical equipment retail stores in Madison, Baraboo, Janesville, Reedsburg and Prairie du Sac because of the outbreak. Equipment can be shipped or delivered, Anderson said.

SSM Health at Home continues to provide home health services and hospice care, she said.

“We will continue to play a vital role in helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by serving the needs of patients that can be cared for at home, as appropriate, per their physicians,” Anderson said.

Chartwell Midwest Wisconsin, a home health care subsidiary of UW Health, is seeing increased business because hospitals are trying to release patients quickly to free up space, said Julie Slattery, chief clinical officer.

“We’re trying to help the hospitals move discharges along ... as soon as they’re medically ready,” Slattery said.

Workers providing care to patients at homes wear at least a mask and a face shield, she said.

The necessities

Newbridge, a nonprofit that includes four senior coalitions in Madison, has closed its dining sites, activity programs, support groups, foot care clinic and home chore service, executive director Jim Krueger said.

Meals are being delivered to some clients by SSM Health at Home, and food boxes from food pantries are being handed out, Krueger said.

Rachel leaving

Meals on Wheels program driver Rachel Desertspring begins her meal delivery route.

Case management is mostly being done by phone or email instead of in person, Krueger said.

NewBridge is distributing “necessity kits” — with thermometers, shampoo, cleaning products, toilet paper, soap, garbage bags, pet food, wipes and other supplies — to encourage clients to stay home.

“We don’t want seniors going out, especially if they have chronic health conditions,” Krueger said.

Sauer said at least a couple of senior living facilities have had residents test positive for COVID-19, including one in Grafton, where Wisconsin National Guard medics were sent last weekend to help.

Staffing shortages that existed before the pandemic have been made worse, causing LeadingAge Wisconsin and other groups to seek a waiver to a requirement that direct care workers in nursing homes be certified nursing assistants, Sauer said. State officials have approved the request, but it also requires federal approval, he said.

The groups are also seeking more gowns, shields, masks and gloves, equipment for which “availability has been shrinking,” Sauer said.

Nursing home life

At nursing homes, group dining is shut down or scaled back, with meals mostly delivered to residents’ rooms. Volunteers and visitors are banned except for end-of-life situations or rare exceptions, such as dementia patients refusing to eat unless a loved one is present.

“People are coming up to windows with signs, trying to talk with residents,” Sauer said.

At Skaalen Retirement Services in Stoughton, employees and health care providers must have their temperatures taken and be screened for symptoms before being allowed in the building, CEO Kris Krentz said.

The complex is using its internal TV channel to continue worship services, bingo and other activities “so that all residents can participate in a non-group setting,” Krentz said.

Oakwood Village, with campuses on Madison’s East and West sides, is live-streaming church services and set up a video chat for a book club, said Keith VanLanduyt, vice president of marketing.

Oakwood’s East Side campus is streaming exercise classes, from yoga and pilates to brain health, he said.

“Residents are obviously bored, but very understanding,” VanLanduyt said. “They follow the news.”

Photos: A look at how the novel coronavirus is affecting Wisconsin

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