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As Vermont Opens Up, Some Senior Programs Move Forward Slowly

Two people sit at a table and eat from plates full of food
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Anne Jensen, left, and Cindy Clark, were among the handful of people who showed up for the first congregate meal at the Brattleboro Senior Center last week.

The state has slowly been opening up since COVID restrictions were lifted in June, but groups that work with older Vermonters say it will probably be a little while before they’re back to pre-COVID programming.

After stopping their daily congregate lunches more than a year ago, the Brattleboro Senior Center recently served its first group meal. Only five people showed up.

Anne Jensen was among them. She said she wanted to make sure she was one of the first to get a meal.

“I don’t cook,” Jensen said. “My daughter is so thrilled that I’m finally going to get some decent food.”

Jensen just turned 90, and before the pandemic, she was a regular at the senior center. She’s been coming for 12 years, and when they were open, she rarely missed a meal.

“It’s breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said.

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So for the last year or so, Jensen has been living on frozen and prepared food she picked up at the supermarket. But it wasn’t just the hot food she missed at the center.

“When this was not open, I’d go days and I wouldn’t come out of my house,” Jensen said. “If I don’t come here, I don’t see anybody. I live up in the mobile home park up there, and I don’t know anybody up there, so. Anyhow, the people I know in town, I know here.”

According to the Vermont Department of Health, people 70 and older had the highest COVID-19 death rate, and were most likely to be hospitalized with the disease. Senior centers were among the first places to shut down last spring.

Four people prepare food in a kitchen
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The kitchen crew at Brattleboro Senior Meals packs food for the Meals on Wheels program. During the pandemic, the organization more than doubled the number of meals it delivered, and organizers expect the number to remain high, even as COVID restrictions are eased.

When congregate gathering had to be put on hold, the number of Meals on Wheels recipients increased, and in Brattleboro, the number of meals delivered meals more than doubled during the pandemic.

While only a handful of people showed up for the first in-person meal, the kitchen staff still started working early in the day to prepare and package about 130 meals, which would be dropped off around Windham County.

Cynthia Fisher is director of Brattleboro Senior Meals, which runs the Meals on Wheels program and the daily lunch, and she says the people who signed up for the delivery program will probably continue getting their food at home.

“I don’t see the number of meals that we produce for Meals on Wheels declining significantly, at this point,” Fisher says. “Those people who did sign up during COVID, that weren’t on our roster previously, they do meet the eligibility requirements, and so I think they will probably continue on, or the majority of them will continue on.”

She added that she wasn’t surprised that the turnout was so low on the first day. There’s still a lot unknown out there with COVID variants, and even though 95% of people 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Fisher says her clients might be slow to make the shift into this post-pandemic world.

a packaged plate of food
Howard Weiss-Tisman
A Meals on Wheels plate is packaged and prepared for delivery in Brattleboro.

Tracey Shamberger is with the group Age Well, which runs the largest Meals on Wheels program in the state in Chittenden County and three other counties in northwest Vermont. She says most of the groups around her area are not even scheduling sit-down meals yet.

“You know, when I think about older people, I think about so many things were shut off,” Shamberger said. “I mean it was like they were the most vulnerable in terms of contracting COVID. So they stayed home, they stayed safe. We’re ready to open everything up, but we haven’t told them yet, necessarily, ‘We’re ready to have you come back, are you ready to come back?’ I mean, I think that there’s some work that has to be done there.”

Shamberger says the groups she works with are moving slowly, scheduling an outside event in late summer and waiting before they go back to regular meals.

Back in Brattleboro, plates of roasted pork loin, potatoes and glazed carrots were served up to people, including Lisa Blake. She didn’t get Meals on Wheels during the pandemic, and instead chose to drive down from her home in Dummerston to pick up a packaged meal every day, just as a way to get out.

So she was eager to sit down again with people, and even shared a table with someone she had not met before.

“Well I’m all alone at home," Blake said. "My husband died 10 years ago, so it’s just me. And I don’t even have a cat. And I’m looking for ways to get out of the house that’s meaningful, you know, where you can talk to somebody, not just go buy your food. You know, talking to people, seeing other people, it’s huge.”

The organizers in Brattleboro say they’re committed now, and they’ll keep serving up meals as long as even a handful of people show up. For now, they’re open four days a week, and will probably move back to five once numbers increase.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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