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Volunteer programs geared toward at-risk populations were hit hard by COVID-19 safety restrictions designed to protect their clients 

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit locally in March 2020, Central Coast Home Health and Hospice had almost 70 volunteers on its roster who helped provide much-needed companionship and respite to hospice patients and their loved ones. Now the program is almost nonexistent.

The activities and services offered through the Central Coast Home Health and Hospice volunteer program vary depending on a patient's needs and the volunteers involved, but Volunteer Coordinator Nicki Tempesta said the overarching goal is to provide some comfort, compassion, and friendship during a difficult time in a client's life. Volunteers often take wheelchair-bound patients out for walks or to see the ocean, they read to patients, play games with them, write dictated letters for them, or do little chores around the house.

click to enlarge A NEW KIND OF SUPPORT In pre-pandemic times, volunteers at nonprofits like Wilshire Health and Community Services provided transportation and emotional support services to homebound seniors in SLO and Santa Barbara counties. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER KAPLAN
  • Photo Courtesy Of Jennifer Kaplan
  • A NEW KIND OF SUPPORT In pre-pandemic times, volunteers at nonprofits like Wilshire Health and Community Services provided transportation and emotional support services to homebound seniors in SLO and Santa Barbara counties.

About half of Central Coast Home Health and Hospice patients reside in assisted living facilities, Tempesta said, and the other half live at home, where they're typically cared for by loved ones. Volunteers also offer services to those loved ones, taking over care responsibilities for them for a few hours each week so that they have time to get out of the house, run errands, rest, and generally take a break from the responsibilities of being a caretaker.

Whatever it might be, it's important work to the patients in need and their families.

"But it's all stuff that's nearly impossible to do without being able to be physically present with a patient," she told New Times.

Like many organizations that serve populations particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 forced Central Coast Home Health and Hospice to rethink its services. A number of local nonprofits and companies that typically provide volunteer-powered aid to seniors, individuals experiencing homelessness, and those who are immunocompromised had to drastically alter their volunteer programs or halt their operations completely.

The Community Action Partnership of SLO, which employs volunteers to help at its senior Adult Day Center, at the 40 Prado Homeless Services Center, and with its child care programs, suspended most of its volunteer efforts early on in the pandemic. The same is true at Central Coast Home Health and Hospice, where Tempesta said the volunteer program is still almost entirely on hold.

While the in-home health services the company provides are considered medically essential, Tempesta said the emotional support volunteers offer is not.

Senior living facilities, for good reason, have been particularly strict about who is allowed to visit—Tempesta said it's almost a year into the pandemic, and some still don't allow in-person visits from family members and certain therapists. Volunteers have never been a high priority on the entry list. Every time it seems like things are getting better and cases of COVID-19 are going down, Tempesta develops a plan to bring volunteers back for some in-person work, and cases surge again.

"It's like doing the Hokey Pokey," she said.

Initially, Tempesta said Central Coast Home Health and Hospice developed a big online training program for its volunteers, and they started making phone calls or writing letters to patients in lieu of in-person visits. Though some are still making those calls, she said they pretty quickly discovered that a lot of their seniors struggle to hear over the phone, or they aren't strong enough to respond via writing. And one of the biggest services volunteers offer—respite to loved ones who care for seniors—just isn't something you can do virtually.

Tempesta said the COVID-19 safety precautions are completely necessary, but it's a huge loss for her patients and their families.

"It's just tragic that we have patients in facilities that their contact with the outside world is so limited," she said. "To have your whole world be within four walls that no one is able to come into, I can only imagine how lonely that must be."

Volunteers at Wilshire Health and Community Services, a nonprofit that also provides home health and hospice care to residents of SLO and Santa Barbara counties, are facing similar challenges.

Jennifer Kaplan is Wilshire's administrative services coordinator, and she said similar to Central Coast Home Health and Hospice, Wilshire's volunteers have historically worked with patients face-to-face. Some drive homebound seniors to medical appointments, church services, grocery stores, and banks. Some stop in for weekly hangouts with lonely patients in their homes and in assisted living facilities, and other volunteers do chores for seniors in need.

"So all of it was in person," Kaplan said. "And our volunteer training and orientations—everything we do is in person."

That changed in March 2020, but Kaplan said it quickly became clear that halting Wilshire's volunteer programs entirely wasn't an option. As Wilshire grappled with how to provide these traditionally face-to-face services at all, it also saw a major increase in need.

"We've always been busy, but this is the busiest we've ever been," she said.

Wilshire already had hundreds of clients prior to the pandemic, and now Kaplan said the nonprofit receives about 30 to 40 referrals for new clients and about 145 requests for services from existing clients each month.

The biggest spike was among at-risk seniors in need of groceries and pharmaceuticals delivered. Though volunteers used to take clients along for the ride, all of that is now done through contactless deliveries. Kaplan said major safety precautions are taken when clients need transportation to medical appointments or the bank.

Face-to-face check-ins aren't really possible right now either, but Kaplan said Wilshire developed phone call and pen pal programs to help volunteers stay in contact with Wilshire's patients throughout the pandemic. Wilshire also transitioned to phone counseling and started doing all of its volunteer training online.

It's been a tough few months, but Kaplan said her team is making it work. What's helped the most, she said, is having so many community members volunteer their time to Wilshire for the first time. Roughly 90 new volunteers have started at Wilshire since March. The focus the pandemic has put on seniors, she said, has made it so that more people than ever are really thinking about how they can help protect and support that population.

"I think people in our community really wanted to help," Kaplan said. "It's something as simple as picking up some grocery items and dropping them off. It's contactless." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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