Responding to COVID-19: The CareGivers

For many New Hampshire residents, the financial and emotional fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has been more devasting than most can imagine. This includes hundreds of homebound and disabled seniors served through The CareGivers program, which provides groceries, rides to medical appointments and various forms of emotional support. To learn how The CareGivers has adapted to meet the growing demand for its services – and a look at the road ahead – we spoke with James Wilkie, the program’s executive director.

How would you characterize your program over the past year?

It’s been a year of challenges, increased expectations and a few surprises. When the pandemic began, we expected a sharp decline in rides through our Caring Rides program as many doctor’s offices canceled non-essential visits. But that was quickly offset by a significant increase in ride requests for dialysis appointments and trips to the grocery store. We’re at a point now where overall rides this year have increased 30%! Of course, safety is paramount. We quickly developed a pandemic protocol for both clients and drivers to keep everyone safe and it has worked very well for us. Many other programs that offer transportation services similar to ours have ceased operations due to lack of funding or volunteers. Because of the incredible support that we receive, we’re extremely proud that Caring Rides continues to thrive in spite of a challenging world. The Caring Cupboard, a program where volunteers deliver groceries to homebound seniors across Greater Manchester and Greater Nashua, has had its fair share of challenges. Requests for food spiked in the spring and we had initial difficulties in meeting the demand. We normally have dozens of volunteers stocking shelves and packing specialized orders weekly, but they were temporarily restricted from the warehouse for several weeks. Thankfully staff from both CareGivers and Catholic Charities chipped in, which was a huge help. Then there was the issue of getting food out to all of our clients – many of our drivers (understandably) weren’t comfortable directly interacting with clients over health concerns. This required us to be more creative, identifying ways to streamline operations and the delivery process. The CareGivers' Caring Cupboard Volunteers Our Caring Cupboard program is an effective, efficient and frugal way of conquering food insecurity among seniors. We can deliver about 40 pounds of food each month to each client at a cost of $12 or less. We continue to adapt as needed to ensure it remains a vital resource for the increasing number of homebound seniors who regularly rely on it.

How are the struggles that your clients face different right now vs. this time last year?

Our clients face a lot more uncertainty in their lives. Many have lost regular caregivers or home health aides since the pandemic began and fear that a second wave or more restrictions will leave them adrift once again. This fear is intensified by increasing feelings of isolation and depression. Any of us can look back to March and April and remember how anxious we felt when life seemingly stopped and we were locked down at home. While it was temporary for us, these are normal experiences for our clients, most of who are homebound and disabled. While many are trying to make the best of a bad situation, others are feeling more alienated, having little to no physical interaction with anyone, including their friends and family. Those in senior housing cannot congregate with friends and enjoy group activities. One client shared, “I have nothing to look forward to.” It’s heartbreaking. But we’re doing all that we can to be there for them and give them something to look forward to. We increased the frequency of reassurance and check-in calls to clients, making nearly 2,500 since the pandemic began. Our staff and volunteers really stepped up to let our clients know that they aren’t alone. As one said, “It’s just me here and I easily get lonely. It’s nice to talk with someone.” The pandemic has also worsened food insecurity among our clients as normal food prices have skyrocketed. From February to June, meat and poultry prices rose nearly 11%, with beef spiking 20% and pork 8%. Egg prices shot up 10% and produce increased 4%. More and more, clients call seeking additional foods, unable to make it from one Caring Cupboard delivery to the next, despite us increasing the amount of product in the deliveries.

As we move into the new year, what worries you most about the next few months? Where do you see the most significant needs among your clients?

There is a fear of continued isolation and intensified feelings of loneliness and depression that go along with it. Some worry when they will see their families again; others are afraid of dying alone. It’s heartbreaking to know these are their expectations for the long months ahead. But, more than ever, we will find ways to assure them that we care, they are not alone and we can get through this together. Many of our clients are also on fixed incomes and will inevitably face increasing financial pressures and difficulties in making ends meet. There’s a lot of stress around the future of healthcare, access to service, cost of service and availability to specialty care. There may be significant changes to Medicaid, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act in 2021. Any out-of-pocket expense can be a life-changing event for our clients. Mounting financial pressure also spells challenges around access to food and other essentials. While the Caring Cupboard has been blessed to be in a position to distribute thousands of pounds of food to hundreds of seniors, the need will continue to grow. This will require us to find new ways to ensure we’re able to offer adequate product and grow our volunteer base. The latter is worrisome as many of our volunteers are seniors themselves and have the same concerns of being high risk and share in the need to be cautious.

Why is donor support (which funds programs like yours) even more critical this year?

Continued donor support is critical to ensure that we can stay ahead of growing client needs and be in a position to offer adequate transportation and food delivery services that make seniors feel less alone, address their food insecurity and bring them much-needed hope for the days ahead.

(To end on a positive note!), are there any particular moments/client interactions that you are most proud of over the past year?

How our volunteers have continually stepped up to the plate. Many have been with us for years, through the ups and downs of the program. And they are still here, at a time when we need them most. We would not be where we are today without them. To learn more about The CareGivers, click here. To help support the program and extend its reach to more New Hampshire residents in need, click here.