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Volunteering and coronavirus: When helping people could mean putting them at risk

Restaurant Medium Rare partnered with volunteer drivers to deliver meals to elderly individuals who were self-isolating due to coronavirus concerns. (Video: The Washington Post)

Thelma Sanderlin, 88, has become accustomed to visitors. She has no husband or children, and no living siblings, but at least twice a month, a volunteer arrives at her apartment in the District to give her a break from the isolation that can jeopardize the health of older adults.

“I just like to have company sometimes,” Sanderlin said. “They’re young people, you see. They listen to my aches and pains.”

But now, as the coronavirus rapidly spreads, keeping Sanderlin isolated has become the goal. To help her, at least in person, would be to put her in danger.

This is the paradox facing nonprofits, community groups, religious organizations and neighbors across the United States, especially those that work with the elderly and other medically vulnerable adults. For regular volunteers and those eager to volunteer in this time of chaos, the systems in place to do so have been upended.

Community centers, tutoring services, home construction programs, recovery meetings, arts workshops and animal shelters have been forced to temporarily shutter. Many of those that ­haven’t closed have had to aggressively scale back their operations to keep those they serve safe.

We Are Family Senior Outreach Network, the organization that provides support to Sanderlin, along with her home health aide, is asking its volunteers to pack food (in shifts, to create distance), deliver groceries (without going inside) and create an extensive network of check-ins (by phone) so that the 800 seniors they serve can remain in their homes.

“The advice to keep away from other people is absolutely contrary to our aim. We’re about trying to bring people together,” said Mark Andersen, the network’s co-director. “If we aren’t in contact in creative, compassionate ways, people are not only going to feel abandoned, they will be abandoned.”

Across the region and the world, do-gooders have come to the same conclusion and have taken it upon themselves to figure out how to help their neighbors through the current pandemic. Twitter, Facebook, email discussion groups and Nextdoor pages are filled with call-outs from healthy people eager to expose themselves to the outside world so others don’t have to.

“If you are in DC and are in the at-risk demographic and [need] errands run so you can limit exposure — will you email me,” tweeted Allison McGill, 45, on Thursday. McGill is the director of care at the Table Church, a nondenominational congregation in Columbia Heights and downtown Washington.

By Friday, hundreds of people raised their hands to help McGill make runs for those in need. By Monday, the list of volunteers had grown to 1,800. Some helped McGill disinfect donated items. She said she always sanitizes her hands, then puts on gloves and sprays the bag with Lysol before she drops off or delivers food or essential goods.

“I am about to drop off toilet paper to a senior citizen who couldn’t find any,” McGill said Monday. “Then I am dropping off bleach to another senior citizen who is a resident at a public housing complex and needs to clean out a community room. Our city sometimes gets a bad rap, but honestly, our city is full of people who really care.”

She passed on the massive list of potential volunteers to the Capital Area Food Bank, which needs people to pack food in its distribution center.

Food banks across the country are facing declines in grocery store donations, financial contributions and regular volunteers, many of whom are older and need to isolate themselves.

Food banks are seeing volunteers disappear and supplies evaporate as coronavirus fears mount

Food & Friends in Northeast Washington lost many of its volunteers when college students on alternative spring break trips had to cancel their plans. To be able to continue delivering groceries and home-cooked meals around the region, the organization is working to develop an online training program so it can bring on new volunteers who can pack and deliver food, while remaining six feet from each other and those they serve.

With so many community groups, restaurants and churches organizing efforts, the nonprofit DC Food Project is keeping an updated list on its website, ­, of places to both get help and to give it.

“A situation like this, you really have two options: You can either hoard and close yourself off or you can figure out wise ways to love your neighbor,” said the Rev. Delonte Gholston, the pastor of Peace Fellowship Church in Northeast Washington, which has organized stations around the District to supply people with food and essential supplies like diapers and toiletries.

“We can’t let the pandemic cause us to us lose our humanity,” Gholston said.

As basic needs are met, those who worked closely with the elderly and vulnerable populations before the pandemic are strategizing on how to do more than just front-door drop offs.

The potential consequences of isolation in older adults are well-established: being lonely can increase risk for chronic illness, cognitive deterioration, depression and even suicidal ideation.

This knowledge has been weighing on Janine Tursini, the director of Arts For the Aging, which provides workshops on topics such as painting, poetry and tango dancing in senior-care settings throughout the D.C. area. As the virus began to spread in the region, she asked the artists who teach to eliminate touching from their classes.

This meant depriving seniors of the thing many of them want most: someone to hold their hands.

It quickly became apparent that classes of any kind would be a danger. Retirement communities closed their doors to visitors. Communal spaces and dining rooms were emptied as seniors were told to stay in their individual rooms.

Tursini began to call the situation “a necessary evil.” Then she started figuring out if it is possible to create a system of online classes, the way that universities and exercise studios are doing.

But therein lies another challenge for the elderly during this time, especially those who are low income: technology.

And the programs whose volunteers could once train older adults on how to browse YouTube or use Skype: temporarily shut down, too.

“That involves sitting right next to someone who is on their computer or their tablet, and that’s just not a safe situation,” said Doug Gaddis, who oversees Silver Spring Village, a nonprofit that serves older adults who are “aging in place” in Maryland. They have stopped technology lessons, home repairs and even rides to medical appointments that aren’t essential.

There are hundreds of communities across the country with similar “Village” models, structured to connect older adults to helpers and friends. As they have scaled back operations, they have received calls and emails from individuals, groups and churches, hoping to do something, anything, to take action in this time when so little feels within control.

Judy Berman, the director of Capitol Hill Village, said as grateful as she is, she’s reminding people that one way to “volunteer” in this time is to just stay home, so they don’t become unwitting carriers of the virus, despite any precautions.

“Part of my response is: Communicate with the young and healthy about their role in stopping this,” she said. “What feels like doing nothing is one of the most important things you can do.”

The sooner the virus stops spreading, the sooner she will have something truly meaningful for those do-gooders to do: face-to-face meetings with lonely older adults. Holding hands. Listening to aches and pains.

“I’m hoping all these folks happy to do these errands now will be equally willing when the pandemic has run its course,” she said.