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Elderly people isolated at home express worries, fears during telephone town hall

A King County Metro bus had no passengers during a ride through Seattle’ Pioneer Square neighborhood March 11. Elderly people are being advised not to use public transit amid the coronavirus pandemic. But some don’t have a choice.
Parker Miles Blohm
A King County Metro bus had no passengers during a ride through Seattle’ Pioneer Square neighborhood March 11. Elderly people are being advised not to use public transit amid the coronavirus pandemic. But some don’t have a choice.";s:

To avoid exposure to the new coronavirus, the elderly are encouraged to stay home. Many can turn to friends and family to bring them what they need. But for those who live alone without anyone around to help that can be challenging. That was one of the issues that came up during a telephone town hall organized by AARP Washington with public health officials.

A woman named Anya, who called into the town hall, said she hadn't seen her case reflected by officials setting policies about sheltering in place. For example, King County Metro is telling people who are vulnerable to avoid public transit, as well as ride share services and taxis.

“I have no one to rely on except myself and I have to use public transportation, unfortunately, to go out to the store and I know a lot of people are in that same situation and I have not heard that reality addressed at the city level, the county level or the state level," she said.

Cathy Knight, director of Seattle’s Office of Aging and Disability Services, responded that agencies like hers are trying to address the needs of people who live alone.

“Some of it can be grocery delivery for folks," she said. "It can be using alternative forms of transportation."

Knight said a federal grant to address COVID-19 has given agencies that serve the elderly additional funds to provide services and more flexibility in how they do it.

However, there are still gaps in the system. in a follow-up email exchange with Knight, she said Hyde Shuttles and Volunteer Transportation — the main alternative transportation providers her agency partners with, through the nonprofit Sound Generations — "are pretty much out of service right now." They may, she said, be "providing limited service through Lyft or Uber vouchers." Of course, that goes against Public Health — Seattle & King County's recommendation to the elderly to avoid ride sharing services.

Others who called into the town hall were worried about the elderly parents they care for at home. A woman named Shannon said her father, who lives with her, has underlying health conditions and has fallen about five times in the past week.

"And I’m scared to take him out of the house even just to see a doctor,” she said.

She said she’s worried he might catch the virus, or she might catch it and give it to him. She said he seems OK and she's hesitant to call 911, which she fears is overburdened with calls. 

“I don’t want to busy up the emergency room and stuff like that," she said. "I’m just trying to figure out what are my choices.”

Near tears, Shannon said she feels like she's failing her dad.

The officials listening, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, were sympathetic and tried to reassure her saying a lot of people are in similar situations.

Read more from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department about precautions to take if you're caring for vulnerable people.

Public health officials urged her to stay in touch with her father’s health care provider and maybe do a telehealth visit. The best thing she can do, they said, is keep herself safe by washing her hands often and wearing a mask when she's caring for her father. But, they said, in a true emergency everyone should definitely call 911.

Doug Shadel, executive director of AARP Washington, says other callers, who were still in queue when the town hall ended, were asking about caring for their grandkids.

"I am 81 and being asked by my son and daughter to babysit the grandkids," one said. "Is it safe for me to do that?"

News elderlyCoronavirus CoverageCOVID-19
Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.

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