ALBANY — The arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020 altered the lives of nearly everyone. From the closing of restaurants and bars to workers and students adapting to online work, the deadly disease brought life-changing transformations.

In Albany, the disease seemed to strike overnight as the city became one of the world’s hardest hit areas. Even those mourning lost loved ones were denied the chance to say proper goodbyes at funerals.

Those who already were isolated due to age or disability found their outlets even more restricted. And as those populations are among the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus that isolation continues as they try to remain safe in their homes.

SOWEGA Council on Aging, which offers programs throughout a 14-county area, was forced to close its centers in March, ending community meals and exercise and other programs that helped its clientele engage in out-of-home activities. The isolation extends to family members who provide in-home care for the elderly, said Izzy Sadler, the agency’s executive director.

To help both groups cope, the Council on Aging has expanded old programs and initiated new ones to help meet the needs of both groups.

For example, at the centers shut down, seniors who are mobile can pick up meals to eat at home. Home delivery of meals to those who can’t drive also has continued. And with additional money made available from the federal government, programs have been expanded.

The senior center without walls initiative, of which restaurant meal pickup is one component, has allowed the Council on Aging to continue services in a virtual format.

Clients who pick up meals can connect with the people they are used to seeing when they ate at the centers. Seniors also can remain active — at home — through online exercise courses including chair yoga, chair exercise sessions and a stationary bicycling class for Parkinson’s disease patients.

“We have activities that we provide such as anything from telephoning to Bingo,” Sadler said. “We have chat sessions where people can call in and talk to all their friends from the center. People can get their meal and chat with their friends on the phone. YouTube classes (offer) all the things you would find in a senior center.”

Walking events that provide outdoor exercise also have been held in several counties.

The additional money made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Family First Coronavirus Response Act will extend through September 2021 or until the available funding is spent.

Currently, about 569 meals are picked up each day through the senior center without walls in the 14 counties served. The Council on Aging also delivers 574 meals to homes each weekday, and an additional 355 are being delivered with COVID-19 relief funds in conjunction with housing authorities in Dougherty, Early, Grady, Lee, Mitchell and Worth counties.

“As we’ve moved into this model we’ve redeployed in a really creative way to serve meals and services (formerly offered) in a community setting,” Sadler said. “It (pickup) allows our clients a way to get a little time out of the house.”

Caregivers who have been spending more time at home also can benefit. The expanded program for caregivers can give them time to get out for a hair appointment, grocery shopping or just some “me time” away from the confines of the home.

“If the caregiver can’t take care of themselves, they can’t take care of the loved one,” Sadler said. “One of the realizations we had was what we can do to help people be not only physically healthy but emotionally healthy as well.”

The program has people who come in for a few hours while caregivers go out to take care of business or personal needs.

Sometimes it’s as simple as allowing someone time to go out for a walk, Sadler said.

The providers follow COVID guidelines, she said, including using personal protection equipment to make their presence as safe as possible.

“They do follow strict protocols,” Sadler said. “They have strict guidelines in place.”

Those initiatives are just a small part of what SOWEGA Council on Aging does, she added.

Residents in southwest Georgia can call for an assessment to determine which programs they may qualify for by calling 1 (800) 282-6612.

“We do have additional programs for each area,” Sadler said. “I encourage people to call if they are lonely, if they are unable to drive to pick up a meal from a restaurant.”

Representatives also field calls from family members of elderly residents in the area who are concerned about their loved ones.

As has been the case for other organizations during the pandemic, the Council on Aging has seen donations decline. Its biggest annual Comedy Night fundraising event was also canceled.

The nonprofit agency accepts donations through www.sowegacoa.org or by check at P.O. Box 88, Albany, Ga. 31702.

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