The City of Salem was certified by WHO and the AARP in January 2017 as an age-friendly community and is now in the fourth year of its five-year action plan. Like it did for many organizations and initiatives around the country, COVID-19 could have halted our process and our progress. We were, however, able to instead use the networks and tools developed by Salem For All Ages (SFAA) over the last four years in order to respond to the crisis, in collaboration with Salem’s Council on Aging (COA).

When the pandemic first hit, Mayor Driscoll formed Salem Together, an initiative to share resources and connect residents in need with support to get through this unprecedented crisis. What started as a small project and a single web page quickly expanded and included the assembling of over 200 volunteers to place well-being phone calls to several thousand Salem seniors who suddenly found themselves homebound and isolated. The coordination of that effort – everything from the assembly of phone lists and crafting of scripts, to the follow-up assistance with things like grocery delivery or social work aid – all flowed directly out of the efforts of Salem For All Ages. Communication efforts have also included columns from Mayor Kim Driscoll and the City’s Health Agent in the Salem News and the COA’s newsletter Senior Power, with important information for seniors about staying safe and healthy during the pandemic.

Food Security
Food security has been a central component of Salem For All Ages’ work in the health domain since the initiative began. With the closure of congregate meals at the COA and the difficulty of providing food pantry services, it was necessary to innovate quickly to ensure those most in need would continue to receive the food they relied upon. COA and SFAA team members worked with community partners, including Root, the Salem Pantry (which saw the average number of clients over age 65 jump 350% since the pandemic started), and Haven from Hunger (which saw a 257% increase in registrants), to deliver 220 meals per week to ten public and private senior housing facilities, add congregate meal attendees to the Meals on Wheels program, expand door-to-door grocery deliveries, and piggy-back on Salem Public School’s student meal delivery program to also provide general household groceries at pick-up sites and to the door of dozens of homebound older adults.

The inability of patients to visit healthcare providers for routine care or other needs has presented a real public health challenge during the pandemic. For seniors, who are more likely to require medical care or attention than the general population, the burden has been disproportionate. Fortunately, there are technological solutions and a revolution in telehealth platforms has made it possible for patients to access most types and levels of care for diagnosis and consultations. Unfortunately, many – though not all – older adults are often not familiar with how to use these new technologies. SFAA is working in collaboration with North Shore Medical Center, North Shore Physicians Group, and other practices in the community to develop a public information campaign focused on educating older adults about how to utilize telehealth tools. The campaign is based on meeting older adults where they are, through columns in the local newspaper and an instructional video on the local cable access channel, in addition to online videos on the City and SFAA websites and social media pages.

Where do we go from here? The people, structures, and systems activated by SFAA in the wake of the pandemic will not just fade away. In fact, they can serve as the basis for more enduring and sustainable change for the better in our community. Furthermore, we know that the “new normal” will likely keep older adults isolated for a long time to come. For example, the network of volunteers and list of older residents can be tapped to rapidly share critical information, foster community engagement, and personalize connections between residents and the City. It can be strengthened even further by working in conjunction with Salem State University’s Spanish language students to allow for better communication with Spanish-speaking seniors. Not only does this develop intergenerational contacts, it can break down barriers for some of the most socially isolated in our community.

The values and goals of Salem for All Ages have been embedded in the work of many departments and organizations in the City, and its priorities have been informed by specific community needs. As a result, when a major health crisis that especially impacted older adults at alarming rates arose, Salem was ready to spring into action, to respond, and to help those most in need.

Dominick Pangallo
Patricia Zaido
SFAA Task Force

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