MCOA Viewpoint: Discussion of the word “Essential,” the Thursday Forum and Shoes

MCOA Membership:

Breathe: First as a network, can we pause and take a breath. We are in uncharted territory. As far as I can see everyone is doing their best to cope with this pandemic. It reminds me of the dedication we witnessed of senior center staff after the hurricanes, the tornado and the gas explosions; only this pandemic is statewide and will likely last for months. Thus, to that end, pause and take a breath. We need to pace ourselves for the long haul. We are not going to get it all right the first time, but the fact we are doing our best, speaks a lot. I am confident we will get through this and come out with a stronger network serving older adults.

Discussion of the word “Essential”- Yesterday’s Emergency Order from our Governor

First thanks to all in this Administration and the 191st General Court for their leadership and dedication to our Commonwealth in this most trying time. The juxtaposition with the Federal response is stark.

This discussion about “Essential” typifies my concern over the need for more precise use of language during a crisis. Most folks are running on adrenaline and are not carefully reading communications that are being sent. Many are skimming the overabundance of COVID-19 material and not fully understanding what is being said.

So let me be precise with my personal interpretation of “Essential”.

First, Nonessential doesn’t mean fluff or disposable!

Start by asking yourself these questions: Is the service a matter of life or death? Will ceasing this activity cause harm?

If you start with these questions then most of the decisions fall into place.

All nutritionally related services to get food/supplies/Rx to home bound older adults and/or transport older adults to stores for said purpose are essential.

Transporting older adults to MD visits are essential but patients should have called first to make sure their physician wants the patient on-site.

If an activity and/or support of an activity can be done offsite then conduct that business off-site. For example: have your transportation coordinator take their rolodex, necessary files, phone and laptop and go home; have your outreach staff and volunteers make wellness calls from home; and you also can be at home connecting with these remote staff for updates.

Keeping your building open is not essential and you should remain closed to the public. If you have to keep part of the building open for essential services limit the staff involved.  (Side Note: Now would be a good time to consider conducting a super cleaning of your empty facility to establish a baseline).

Having said all of that, which is my personal interpretation, “Essential” is defined locally. Your town leadership and Public Health Department should be consulted with all actions you take and services you provide. The Administration has made recommendations that can be reviewed on our website. We have referred your submitted questions and concerns to them and then we post their responses online.

A few more caveats to consider regarding transport of older adults: Since we don’t know who has been exposed and who has not, you should assume everyone has been. Thus limit the number of riders on your van and develop protocols about cleaning vans before, during and after transport. Limit the number of times each individuals that can be transported over the next two months and consider waiving the limit on the number of bags a rider can bring home: More bags, less people.

Social isolation will be prominent during this period and many will begin to disregard social distancing and stay at home orders. It is important that you begin to find creative ways to contact your participants beyond the usual “wellness checks”. MCOA will be posting these creative solutions. We seek your ideas.

Last Thursday’s Statewide Forum:

A lot of people have expressed angst about the call in forum last Thursday, March 19thMy above message about reading thoroughly and not skimming communications derives from that angst. We were very clear in all of our communications that this was not an interactive forum. Questions should have been submitted ahead of time. We conducted this statewide forum at the behest of the Secretary of Elder Affairs and this protocol was established by them. They wanted questions before the meeting so they could consult with appropriate authorities and report back to our membership with the most accurate, up-to-date information.  There were clearly problems, but to be frank, many were from participants who did not carefully read the invitation or fully understand the purpose and protocol of this statewide event.

Also of note: MCOA has, through all of our Coronavirus communications, solicited questions and comments from our network. We have responded to many and posted some on our web page under Coronavirus – FAQs. Send questions to and they will be triaged to the appropriate staff or agency. Best practices and creative solutions are also being posted.

Regional Meetings Online: From the beginning of this crisis, it has always been our intention to conduct regional forums where interaction could be allowed. We held off initiating these regional meetings until next week because many of you were in the process of closing down your centers and targeting the most frail. We will be announcing the status of our regional meetings at our weekly Statewide Forum this Thursday. We are currently checking within regions because many of you, through our regional rep network, already established a line of communication and we do not want to duplicate your efforts. Once a point person is established within each region we will develop a system of two way communications to disseminate information and collect concerns, questions, and best practices. I feel these forums will be more appropriate to address our members needs and share potential solutions going forward. But these regional meetings do not negate your ability to submit questions, concerns or best practices directly to us at

Have you walked in our shoes lately?

A good friend privately expressed angst about some of our communications to members regarding Service Incentive Grants (SIG) and this typifies my last concern that I want to share. We are a network of 350 municipalities; We all handle stress differently, we all face different work demands, and we all confront different challenges. I am reminded of the axiom that if you have seen one Massachusetts Senior Center you have seen only one…there are 350. The pandemic is impacting municipalities differently and impacting each of us uniquely.

As to any and all contracts between MCOA and local COAs, we are contacting you to assess your status. We have found some that have said, no way can I even think about my SIG contract before June 30, but some do want to continue with their contract, and some who are taking a wait and see position. Many are out straight and some want “something to do- to stay busy.” There is no clear pattern as of today.

So again, let me be clear:

  • No Way = no harm no foul: COAs that feel they are not in the position to complete their contracted SIG grant by June 30th – no problem but let us know, so we can plan to redirect the money.
  • Move forward with a recalibration: COAs that wish to continue with their projects but may need to recalibrate, contact us immediately so we can ascertain if you may also need a budget adjustment. (e.g. Some trainings that were originally in person will now be offered online).
  • Wait and See: Some COAs may want to wait to make that decision after the dust has settled. We are comfortable with that approach as well but we will press you for your final decision by May1st.

Your choice!

My final thoughts and requests:

We are not going to wake up tomorrow and find this is a dream and unlike the rhetoric out of DC this is not going to be over soon. I believe the scientists: that for the foreseeable future this is our new normal. It will probably impact our service delivery systems well into FY22 (18 months from now). I am offering that assessment because we still don’t fully know how this is transmitted, how long does a person remain contagious, can you get it again, and or when if ever there will be a vaccine.

Yes I am having personal flashbacks to the early days of the HIV crisis when all of these questions haunted those of us that were trying to establish services and programs for PWAs in a society that treated them as lepers. That experience hardened me about what is realistic and helped me focus on my own serenity:  “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Thus with that experience I ask you to pace yourselves and ratchet down your public angst. People are looking for you for your leadership and to set the tone for your Center and our network… Breathe

Take care of each other – reach out and connect with one of your peers. We will get through this!


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Massachusetts Councils
on Aging

116 Pleasant Street, Suite 306
Easthampton, MA 01027
Telephone: 413-527-6425
Fax: 413-527-7138