A COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Biddeford on March 16. Here, Kennebunk Fire and Rescue paramedic David Garriepy administers a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination to Mary Rich of Waterboro following the official opening of the site at the Center for Shopping in Sanford on March 2. The Southern Maine Agency on Aging has helped coordinate vaccination clinics for seniors in York and Cumberland counties. Tammy Wells photo

BIDDEFORD — With all the changes brought on from the COVID-19 pandemic, Southern Maine Agency on Aging has worked to help seniors navigate new challenges, from technology and meal accessibility to vaccination information.

The Southern Maine Agency on Aging, a nonprofit organization, helps 22,000 people a year in some capacity throughout York and Cumberland counties, including seniors who work with volunteers, call in for information or are a part of the Meals on Wheels program, said Chief Executive Officer Megan Walton.

The agency, which had been located on Route 1 in Scarborough, moved to Biddeford earlier this year. At the end of last year, the agency decided to put its Scarborough location on the market, something the organization had been considering since before the pandemic began, Walton said.

“Just about this time last year, we were evaluating our commercial real estate footprint, and we owned two buildings, one in Scarborough and then also the Sam L. Cohen Adult Day Center in Biddeford,” she said. “We were looking at this prior to COVID and then COVID hit, so it really accelerated our timeframe.

“We made the decision to sell the Scarborough building because it was an aging building. We felt like it didn’t serve our mission or our purpose. It was a highly administrative office building, and so many of our programs are about communal spaces and open spaces.”

Walton said the agency on aging has consolidated the former Scarborough office with the organization’s Biddeford location. The building was sold earlier this year to Ram Ventures LLC, brokered by The Boulos Company.

Since the pandemic started, all of the agency’s programs have changed, Walton said. Some have evolved to help seniors and the aging population access the new needs caused by the pandemic and social isolation.

Beginning in February, the nonprofit opened a dedicated phone line for callers with questions about the COVID-19 vaccine or those who had not been able to find a vaccine appointment, Walton said. Working with Northern Light Home Care and Hospice, the agency has managed to help bring a number of clinics and appointments to rural Maine communities.

For seniors who are unable to leave their homes, the agency has helped them receive the vaccine as well, she said. There is also help available for those who need transportation to their inoculation appointments.

Since the pandemic started, the needs of aging citizens have been different than the younger population, many unable to leave their homes and feeling isolated, said Walton.

“We’ve noticed we’re unable to reach those people who do not have internet or do not have a computer or are unable to access Zoom, so that has been a tricky process,” she said. “A couple of things our volunteers have done, which has been neat, is for those clients who are very socially isolated. We have so many more phone pal volunteers, and those volunteers connect directly with clients who are not having regular interactions, just check in on them and see how things are going.”

Other volunteers have worked with seniors who have never used tablet devices before, Walton said.

“We’ve had a number of volunteers step up to be tech pal volunteers, which means actually getting a tablet into the hands of somebody who has not used technology before and helping them get plugged into Facetime or helping them connect with online resources or something they haven’t been able to connect to before,” she said.

Since the start of the pandemic, as communal programs closed and many seniors were unable to make trips to the grocery store, the agency saw an increased need for the Meals on Wheels program, Walton said. According to the agency’s website, Meals on Wheels delivers five meals a week to participants.

“Because we offer so many congregate meals in a communal space, that can no longer happen, so we started to also offer meals to-go events in different local communities, community centers or churches or in partnership with another nonprofit organizations, just making sure the food was reaching the people who needed it,” she said. “Meals on Wheels has been more vital than ever in this pandemic because so many people cannot leave their home.”

The organization has worked to bring meals that appeal more to older immigrants and refugees, finding restaurants to prepare healthy meals of all different cultures, Walton said.

In-person programming would benefit some of the agency’s participants, and the organization is hopeful that these sorts of programs can reopen soon, she said.

“Many of the clients we served through our adult day programming, and we had to pause programming because of the pandemic and we know there are many clients with dementia who are at home,” she said. “And that is tough because we know they would be getting so much more interaction and enjoyment and activity if they were able to be a part of the adult day program right now. We’re really hopeful we’ll be able to open up the program again soon, but until then it’s really hard for families and people who are taking care of a parent or spouse who has dementia, it can be a very lonely place to be.”

Residents of York and Cumberland counties with questions, including COVID-19 vaccination questions, can call 396-6500. For those interested in volunteer opportunities, visit smaaa.org/volunteer/index.html.

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