‘Support Buddies' Help Vt. Seniors During Coronavirus Crisis

The new program partners older Vermonters with community volunteers who run errands for them, or simply place a phone call to check in

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A new effort has formed to connect senior citizens in and around Vermont’s largest city with friends in the community to help them through the COVID-19 crisis.

“I just think it’s miraculous,” said Sandy Short, 80, of Burlington. “It’s a wonderful service.”

Short, who said she is at home fighting off pneumonia, takes part in a program called Support Buddies which just launched through the Heineberg Senior Center in response to the dramatic upheaval in daily life during the response to the spread of COVID-19.

Heineberg is closed for now for its regular programming, but to keep reaching the folks it serves, the center is partnering with the nonprofit HANDS—Helping and Nurturing Diverse Seniors—to pair community volunteers with older community members in and near Burlington.

Restaurants are cooking meals those buddies will drop off to their match, and they’ll also help them run errands or simply give them a call to talk and check in while the seniors are home staying safe from the new coronavirus.

“Suddenly, seniors were really isolated and afraid at home,” observed Megan Humphrey, the executive director of HANDS.

Humphrey added that while meals or grocery store trips can feed the body, it’s those conversations that nourish the spirit. She said such connections are vital to driving out loneliness and depression in seniors.

“I think all of us just feel better when we’re doing something—some way to help right now,” Humphrey told NECN & NBC 10 Boston.

Beth Hammond, the executive director of the Heineberg Senior Center, said she has been touched to see a large number of volunteers and businesses reach out and ask to become a part of Support Buddies.

“Community members, individuals, organizations, all coming together is incredibly heartwarming,” Hammond said.

Monday, senior issues were in the news for another reason, too.

A Burlington nursing home announced it had so many staffers diagnosed with COVID-19, it needed to bring in reinforcements.

Birchwood Terrace, which also has a physical rehabilitation mission, said Monday that 22 employees tested positive, after the facility checked all residents and staff last week.

Previously, more than two dozen residents had positive tests, the facility said.

The University of Vermont Medical Center is now supporting Birchwood by providing personnel to aid in caring for the residents.

COVID-19 outbreaks have been documented in at least eight Vermont nursing homes or senior living communities, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

As of Monday, the state had seen 23 deaths of people diagnosed with the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, numbers released by the health department showed.

Still, Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine pointed to more encouraging numbers from a mathematical model on Vermont run by researchers at Northeastern University.

“All of what we’re doing now, could, potentially, when it’s all over, have saved 1,700 lives,” Levine told reporters Monday.

The health commissioner asked Vermonters to continue staying home as much as possible, calling aggressive social distancing critical to slowing the spread of the virus.

Sandy Short said she is grateful for the donations and volunteer hours that have connected her to her “support buddy.”

“Tomorrow, I might ask her if she could get dog food for me,” Short said. “I can’t wait to meet her in person when this whole thing gets over.”

Humphrey and Hammond encouraged people outside their service area to pick up the phone and call a senior in their community, saying that simple gesture could well make that person’s day.

For more on how to contribute to the work of Support Buddies—with either time or resources—visit this website.

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