Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, is home to the city of Pittsburgh and 1.2 million people—16.8 percent of whom are age 65 or older. Nearly half of the county’s residents age 75 or older live alone.
The county and city each joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities in 2015. This initiative, called Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, is a program of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership of Aging and funded by the Henry L. Hillman Foundation.
The coronavirus crisis poses many different kinds of obstacles for older residents, notes Laura Poskin, Director of Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh. “Our initiative brings together local leaders from many fields: transportation, housing, volunteerism, caregiver support — you name it. Our collective response focuses on access to basic needs and social connectivity.”
Distributing food and essential supplies through existing programs is a priority along with expanding and improving services to meet new needs.
The local paratransit service, ACCESS, has been enlisted to deliver thousands of meals and truckloads of supplies such as personal protective equipment, in a partnership with United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Wesley Family Services’ program In Service of Seniors continues to deliver food but has replaced in-person visits by volunteers with phone calls.
There are increasing concerns about social isolation with senior centers and other recreational centers closed along with restrictions on face-to-face socializing. Since March, Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh has been offering virtual #CoffeeConnectPGH sessions every other Thursday, replicating events once held in coffee shops.
These sessions take place on Virtual Senior Academy, a project of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation offering social interaction through online courses and book clubs on subjects ranging from health to history to art.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resources
All Virtual Academy courses are free, and though it was created for people over 50, anyone is welcome to sign up. In fact, some of the new programmings are designed for kids from age 5 and up. As noted on the program’s website: ‘If you’re looking to expand your horizons and make new friends, Virtual Senior Academy is for you!’
The Results, Thus Far
“It’s been amazing to see how quickly our service providers rose to the new challenges,” Poskin reports. “Overall, our leaders have been distributing food and supplies, adapting building protocols based on best practices, engaging volunteers for socially-distant neighborly assistance, and sharing resources to keep people of all ages safe, informed and engaged.”
Wesley Family Services: In Service of Seniors saw a five-fold increase of new volunteers. This extra support allowed them and their sister program at North Hills Community Outreach to make 458 food deliveries over seven weeks— and check-in with more 800 older neighbors with phone conversations.
At the Virtual Senior Academy, the average class size doubled from February to April, and new participants increased by 300 percent to more than a thousand. The virtual #CoffeeConnectPGH sessions have “been surprisingly satisfying, generating conversation and support among neighbors, many of whom are meeting for the first time,” Poskin says.