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COVID-19 disrupts the lives of the older community 

On March 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for all senior citizens, 65 and older, and residents with chronic conditions to stay home in an effort to protect vulnerable populations from the coronavirus.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, about 20 percent of the population in San Luis Obispo County is 65 and older.

Kris Kington-Barker executive director of Hospice SLO County, said with the rule in place, the nonprofit is taking measures to protect its clients and volunteers.

"Right now I think one of the things that is really difficult is we've had to be very protective of our volunteers because a lot of them are in the vulnerable population as well," Kington-Barker told New Times. "A lot of volunteers who give time to agencies like ours, Wilshire, or any place tend to be people who are over 60."

Hospice SLO County is currently transitioning its services to be virtual and by telephone. The nonprofit has 31 support groups that will be online; counseling services will move to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) qualified telemedicine; 88 clients on in-home services will still be seen.

Kington-Barker said their volunteers who are assigned to call clients are checking on them daily to see if they need groceries or medicine and to ask how they're doing.

"We're trying to do everything we can to think of creative ways to not lose them and not lose touch with them because for some clients these [volunteers] are their only contact," she said.

Jen Kaplan, Wilshire Community Services' administrative services coordinator, said the organization has a program already in place for seniors who are isolated or homebound due to a disability. Through the Adopt-a-Grandparent program, volunteers meet the essential needs of SLO County residents such as transportation, grocery shopping assistance, counseling, and friendly visits.

Kaplan said the most requested service through the program is transportation to medical appointments or the grocery store.

"We serve about 500 clients a year and our volunteers make about 1,500 trips a year," she said.

In order to protect their volunteers and clients, Kaplan said, clients will still be taken to their medical appointments (per the guidance of the doctor) but other errands will be done without the client in the car.

Similar to Hospice SLO County, many of the volunteers who lent their time to Wilshire are 65 and older.

"We've had over 50 new volunteers reach out to us that want to provide assistance to seniors," she said.

Typically, a new volunteer would have to go through a two-hour training and get a flu shot, and there is a reference check, a background check, and a drug test that's administered. But Kaplan said in order to assist their clients in this time, Wilshire is expediting the process with a brief online training, an application, background check, and volunteer agreement.

Community members are also finding ways to help the vulnerable population. Cal Poly professor Leah Wood was inspired to create the Facebook page and website HelpSLO—a platform to connect community members with those seeking assistance–after seeing a couple of posts on Twitter. She was following coronavirus updates in New York and started to see people tweeting about wanting to help their community members.

"I was in a dark place last week feeling worried and uncertain about what to do. And then I woke up Saturday [March 14] and thought, 'Oh I know what we can do, we can be helpers,'" Wood said.

HelpSLO is a Facebook group where people can create a post detailing their needs for assistance, and once it gets fulfilled, Wood said she, a moderator, or the creator of the post will delete it.

"All acts of service should be at an agreed-upon drop-off location without person-to-person contact," she said. "If someone did see or respond to a request for a service that would necessitate contact with another person, they should notify me so I can put them in touch with an agency that is equipped to facilitate this kind of service."

The focus of the group is to donate time. It's not for posting coronavirus updates, promoting fundraisers or for-profit businesses, or asking for monetary donations.

For individuals who don't have access to the internet or social media, the HelpSLO website has a PDF document volunteers can print out and hand out to their neighbors. The document contains information about the HelpSLO website, email, social media contact, and a place for the volunteer to write their name and phone number.

Since HelpSLO's creation, other groups have formed that are tailored to specific communities such as HelpTempleton, HelpFiveCities, or HelpAtascadero.

Similarly, Giovanni DeGarimor, owner of Giovanni's Fish Market and Galley in Morro Bay, created the Adopt-a-Neighbor SLO County Facebook group.

Members of the group can post coronavirus updates, special services that schools, businesses, and organizations are providing, and calls for help.

"I've grown up here my whole life, and I know that there's a ton of people who have really big hearts. I think it's in our nature to want to help one another," DeGarimore said.

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