For region’s elderly, March always a welcome beacon to step outside
February 29, 2016 12:20 AM
Meals on Wheels volunteers Galen Osby, right, and Bill Simmons make a food delivery to a home in Sharpsburg.
Meals on Wheels volunteers Galen Osby, right, and Bill Simmons dash across Main St. to make a food delivery to an apartment in Shapsburg.
Patricia Panion receives Meals on Wheels food from volunteers Galen Osby and Bill Simmons at her Spring Hill home. “If I don’t have to go out on a day like today, I’m not going to go out. ... I go out when it’s nice,” said Ms. Panion, 64, after sleet fell outside her home one morning last week. A physical impairment requires her to use a scooter to get around outdoors.
Edward Payne, 70, lives in a Deutschtown house without gas heat. Meals on Wheels volunteers Galen Osby and Bill Simmons are his contacts to make sure he's coping in the cold weather.
Meals on Wheels volunteers Galen Osby, right, and Bill Simmons wait for a client to open the door of a Sharpsburg apartment building to make a food delivery.
By Gary Rotstein / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As calendars prepare to flip to March, with more warm-weather days imminent like those early this week, the change of seasons buoys more than the region’s impatient gardeners, golfers and grillers.
The approaching end of another Pittsburgh winter — even one milder than many of the past — is a boost to the many elderly or disabled adults who are limited in ability or willingness to get outdoors in cold, icy or snowy conditions.
“If I don’t have to go out on a day like today, I’m not going to go out. … I go out when it’s nice,” said Patricia Panion, 64, after sleet fell outside her Spring Garden home one morning last week.
A physical impairment requires her to use a scooter to get around outdoors.
She’s one of about 2,500 Allegheny County residents receiving government-subsidized Meals on Wheels deliveries through a network of nonprofit agencies. Those individuals range from those who are mobile, but need mild assistance with daily activities, to those who are virtually homebound, perhaps getting out only for medical appointments.
Many live alone, which is true of about 3 of 10 county residents ages 65-84 and nearly half of those older than that. For such individuals, enduring several months largely cooped up inside can be a depressing period of social isolation, though many treasure their ability to live in their own residence and are stoics accustomed to coping.
“Sometimes I want somebody to talk to, and you end up talking to the walls,” said Anna Crame, 86, who has diabetes and arthritis and lives on the eighth floor of the St. Ambrose Manor high-rise in Spring Hill. “I don’t really get out much in wintertime, because every time I go out, I feel like I end up with pneumonia.”
Fred Rubin, a geriatrician and chief of medicine at UPMC Shadyside, said the hospital sees more patients in winter than summer, many of them elderly. Some of that is due to flu season, which has been relatively mild this year, “but there seem to be more strokes and heart attacks in winter. … It seems to be more of an issue in the elderly, who tend to be the canary in the coal mine who get hit worse by whatever.”
Kim Delp, senior director for the Northern Area Multi-Services Center, said the agency’s senior centers generally see attendance drop about 10 percent during the winter, and at the same time requests for home-delivered meals go up.
Because clients may be seen infrequently by friends, relatives or anyone else, those delivering meals are given smartphones with apps that enable them to send quick electronic messages to nurses to report any concerns about their clients’ health or safety.
The phone alert system is used at all times of year by drivers of the Meals on Wheels of Greater Pittsburgh collaborative, but it can be especially useful in winter, as deliverers Galen Osby and Bill Simmons found in dropping off a lunch and dinner for Edward Payne in his North Side apartment last week.
While noting his various health ailments during a chat with them, the 70-year-old mentioned that his gas heat had been shut off when a utility employee tagged it as unsafe during a home visit. Mr. Payne has been waiting for his landlord to make repairs, and despite using electric space heaters in the meantime, he said, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been warm.”
The deliverers messaged information by the phone app about Mr. Payne being in unsafe conditions and called their supervisor as well to see if he could get some assistance. Mr. Osby said that among some 80 people on his delivery route, he’ll report one or two a month as being in need of help. In many cases, those people are reluctant to speak up themselves.
“Your chronic conditions start to exacerbate more with the cold weather, and people may have something going on, and it’s easier for them to hide it in the winter,” Ms. Delp said. “The biggest fear of a senior is losing their independence by having to go to the hospital and possibly not be able to come back to their own home afterward.”
United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, through its 211 telephone service line, links both seniors and volunteers to additional programs in which needy individuals can be helped. In the Open Your Heart to a Senior initiative, more than 5,000 older adults in Allegheny County received some sort of volunteer companion help last year, whether by snow shoveling, transportation for shopping or medical appointments, organizing of their mail and bills or other means.
And in the AgeWell Pittsburgh CheckMates program, volunteers make weekly conversational phone calls year-round to about 200 seniors at home around the county who appreciate the social contact.
For some older adults, the weather outside isn’t their biggest impediment — it’s the day-to-day challenges of their range of maladies, such as the back fracture that hampers Catherine Buchan, 76, who uses a cane in her Sharpsburg apartment but relies on a walker when outdoors.
To her, winter is just something “that comes and goes. … If I don’t have to go anywhere, I stay inside,” she said, nonetheless smiling, while receiving a tray of pork, peas and mashed potatoes as a hot lunch from Mr. Osby.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.
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