Updated: 6:59 p.m.
Darla Waldner’s No. 1 priority is to figure out how to provide meals to seniors amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.
Waldner leads the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging, based in Warren, Minn., which serves 21 northwestern and west-central Minnesota counties. It’s one of seven area agencies on aging across the state that, along with a patchwork of other organizations, provide meals to seniors.
Last year, Dancing Sky delivered 192,562 meals to homes — and served 204,425 group meals at senior centers in small towns and larger centers across the region.
But now those senior centers are shutting down, as part of a statewide effort to curb the rapid spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, to which seniors are especially vulnerable.
So, Waldner is now trying to arrange curbside pickup or home delivery for the people who usually gather in centers around the region for a noon meal — and it’s not easy.
"We're actually going to have to be creative and think outside the box,” said Waldner. “To be honest, in some parts of our region, before we even heard the word ‘coronavirus,’ we were struggling to find people that are able to do meal delivery."
Many volunteers who deliver Dancing Sky’s meals to seniors are also seniors, Waldner said, and need to be protected from potential exposure. So, for now, they’ll leave meals outside people’s doors, rather than interacting with them.
But demand is now increasing as the pandemic grows, and she’s concerned the organizations that provide those meals are going to need community support. Waldner is heartened by people already offering help.
“Different local restaurants [have been] saying, ‘Hey, we want to help’ — and college students [are] offering to deliver meals because we're going to have to do that differently,” she said.
Kristi Giese is also managing the hundreds of logistical decisions that go into developing plans to keep meals available to seniors. She is program director for Nutrition Services, a company that runs 10 kitchens to provide senior meals at about 80 sites in nine west-central Minnesota counties.
“We are putting plans together to accommodate if, for instance, some staff would get sick in some of our facilities then we would need to call on other sites to be able to accommodate for those meals,” she said.
Giese is also looking for additional help: people with food service experience who might help fill gaps if cooks get sick — and she anticipates a need for meal delivery drivers.
“We would encourage anybody if they're able to help doing deliveries, that would be amazing,” she said.
Giese said she expects some of the locations she works with will offer curbside meal pickup at closed senior centers, but as more seniors choose to stay home while state officials urge “social distancing,” she expects the demand for meal deliveries to increase.
The food supply needed to provide those meals is stable, Giese said, but she’s been warned of a potential shortage of the disposable containers that Nutrition Services uses to store and deliver meals. That’s thanks in part to this week’s closure of all dining-in services at restaurants across the state.
“A lot of restaurants are offering more carry-out meals, and so that's going to require more disposable-type trays and things like that,” said Giese. “As of now, we've been OK, but there's no way to predict that, I guess.”
The unpredictable future worries Waldner of Dancing Sky. She said Dancing Sky can meet an increased demand for meal deliveries for a couple weeks, but she’s not sure what would happen if the pandemic-driven shutdown stretches into the summer.
For now, she’s hoping the state will ease rules to allow organizations more flexibility in the way they spend designated funds. The Minnesota Board on Aging said Friday it is allowing flexibility to shift funding from congregate site meals to home delivery. A spokesperson said the board is also seeking greater flexibility from the federal government in the use of funds for senior nutrition programs.
“We actually get one pot of money that’s for congregate dining and one is for home delivery — and there's just some rules in place that you can't transfer [those funds] back and forth,” Waldner said.
There’s also anxiety among many seniors, she said, on lots of fronts. Dancing Sky also runs the statewide Senior LinkAge Line, a help line for senior citizens across Minnesota. The organization has seen an increase in calls from seniors wondering if they’ll get their meals, if they should let anyone into their houses, if their medication will be delivered and if they can find help with doing their taxes, because income tax assistance sessions have been canceled.
Waldner is encouraging all service providers she works with to contact seniors and ask some key questions: Do they need meals? Do they need help getting prescriptions? And do they have any urgent medical needs?
“Those are our three priorities right now, and then stay tuned,” she said. “I don't know what's to come. We're doing the best we can.”
Help for Minnesota seniors
The state’s Senior LinkAge Line is a free statewide service sponsored by the state Board on Aging.
It’s a toll-free number — 1-800-333-2433 — with a related website at mnaging.org.
In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, the state of Minnesota has also issued guidelines meant to slow the spread of the COVID-19 disease, with special guidance for senior citizens.