The Gerontology Institute’s Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging is launching a series of blog posts to follow the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Councils on Aging across Massachusetts. Posts reporting on conversations with COA directors about how they manage the evolving COVID-19 challenge will appear on the Gerontology Institute Blog. We encourage COA readers to tell us about their experiences or responses to blog posts by using the reply box at the bottom of each post. 

 How do you deal with a problem as overwhelming as the coronavirus pandemic? David Stevens prefers to think about that answer in phases.

Stevens, the executive director of the Massachusetts Councils on Aging (MCOA), has been leading an effort to provide support, coordinate resources and lead communication with his 350 member-COAs since the COVID-19 crisis gripped the state.

He recalls the first phase of the MCOA response as his “hair on fire” moment when councils across the state closed their doors to the public, along with many other municipal offices. It was a challenge just to get a grasp on what was happening. But soon, the focus moved to basic but critical services – making sure people knew how to get their medicine and had access to food.

Now, MCOA is beginning a third phase that involves moving more programming online and improving a range of communications. Stevens hopes a fourth phase will soon prompt COAs to look back at recent events and learn how they can better operate in the future, especially if there is a renewed outbreak of coronavirus.

“We’re probably about halfway through making sure essential services are being conducted at senior centers and we’re starting to look at that (social) programming,” said Stevens. “We see nothing changing soon. This is going to be the ‘current normal’ for the next 10 to maybe 20 weeks.”

MCOA keeps a running count of activity levels among all its members. As of April 16, a total of 269 had no public activities but staff was reporting. That represents 80 percent of MCOA’s membership. Another 46 COAs, or 14 percent, were closed with no staff reporting. A total of 21, or 6 percent, were open with limited programs.

Soon after virus became a health crisis across the country, MCOA developed a new part of its website to begin communicating important COVID-19 information to its members.

It also helped organize a way for COA directors to connect indirectly with state officials. COAs submitted questions by 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Carole Malone, assistant secretary of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, responded by the next afternoon.

“She answers those questions in a very scripted format, but it’s a way to get information out to the network for those who want it,” said Stevens.

MCOA has also extended its regional communications networks with members to better understand how COA responses are developing in different areas of the state. Those networks are also helping identify ways that communities can work together and support each other.

Now, helping local councils expand their online programming and offering other support or services is a priority.

“I spend my day worrying about a caregiver at home 24/7 for weeks and weeks on end,” said Patty Sullivan, MCOA’s program director of the Dementia Friendly Massachusetts Initiative. “We’re hoping COAs take their support groups online or connect people with other support groups that may have moved online.”

Experimenting with a variety of forms of communication for different purposes remains a priority for MCOA and its members. That including everything from email trees to phone call groups to videoconferences. Lots of videoconferencing.

“We’ve bought enough Zoom licenses to own stock at this point,” said Stevens.