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Belmont County senior services continue through the pandemic

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — There is no sign of Belmont County’s senior centers opening soon, since the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated their closing, but Belmont County Senior Services continues to assist the segment of the population that is most vulnerable to the illness.

Those older residents often can also be those most in need of social bonds, such as those formed with interactions at sites such as senior centers.

Dwayne Pielech has served as senior services director for three months, taking on the role during the pandemic.

“We don’t know, you don’t know, what’s going to happen with this coronavirus. There’s all the debate about whether even schools can open. School kids aren’t at risk like senior citizens are. If they’re not even sure what they’re going to do with schools, we believe it’s going to be even longer with senior centers,” he said. “We don’t have a failsafe way to open centers for the foreseeable future.”

“What we’re trying to do because of the COVID-19 is we still want to be able to offer services to the seniors. … So with the help of our staff and a lot of the staff in the senior centers, we have had to change the way we do business and the way we offer programs and services,” he said.

Currently, senior services staff make regular “reassurance calls” to senior citizens to provide daily interaction over the phone.

“It really is tough, especially for seniors that don’t have a close family network,” Pielech said.

“They’re doing real well,” Mary Beth Tennant, Powhatan Point Senior Center coordinator, said, adding she calls her list of seniors regularly. “We’ve become their family. … We’re taking good care of them.”

“There’s a lot of fear in a lot of our seniors because of the unknown as to what’s going on, not knowing what’s going to happen with the coronavirus. You see these flare-ups and everything. … Since we can’t have the face-to-face with the person, it allows us to make sure they’re doing OK — do they need anything? They might have the need for transport to a medical appointment. The center staff will get them in touch with medical transportation staff,” Pielech said.

He added that more safety measures have also been included in trips to the hospital or appointments.

“Our center staff have been stepping in,” he said. “Somebody has a surgical procedure and can’t get to the grocery store, so our center staff will help them with groceries.”

“We’re at full capacity with medical transportation, and we use precautions. We require the senior to sit in the back seat. They have to have a mask on,” he said. “The staff has stepped up.”

The department is now producing 1,100 meals daily for home deliveries.

“Many of these seniors … would have come to the center in the past to have a congregate meal, play games … field trips,” he said, noting many seniors do not have family close by.

Pielech said there have been many donations of food.

“We on a daily basis deliver commodities to seniors,” he said. “Just last week we brought in 1,000 pounds of chicken. … We worked on distributing that.”

Senior services also is holding food distributions outside the senior centers, though the centers themselves remain closed.

“Our seniors that drive … they’ll come to a center and we’ll have tables outside. The weather’s been great. We’ll put the commodities outside … that’s on a weekly basis,” he said.

The commodity days are for senior center members age 60 and older.

Other programs include taking advantage of state vouchers for trips to farmers’ markets. Belmont County originally was approved for 238 vouchers. This number has increased to 363.

“We’ve gotten an additional 125,” he said. “We’ve eliminated waiting lists. … It is based on income. As we get more applicants, we’ll ask the state for more vouchers. There’s some counties that aren’t as aggressive with this. We’re very aggressive.

“We were looking at services we may not have done in the past that we can maybe introduce to seniors to try to help them cope to get through this tough period of time,” he said.

The Department of Senior Services can be reached at 740-695-4142.

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