Town Hall may have seemed eerily quiet over the past year with staggered work schedules and reduced visitor hours, but the Council on Aging (COA) offices have been anything but still. Director Joan Ingersoll, who recently celebrated her one-year anniversary with the COA (15 months, actually), generously took a short break from her daily tasks to talk about her first year on the job.
What was it like to start a new job during the pandemic? There was an established staff here when I came on, and the fact that I could come into the office every day, even if I was by myself a lot of the time, allowed me to get my arms around the job in a way I was never able to do at previous jobs. That was the silver lining.
The challenge for me was how to connect with the seniors. I feel strongly that it’s important for seniors to know who I am. I have always been a hands-on administrator, and have more than 30 years of experience working in human services running non-profit agencies that assist people with disabilities and mental health issues. I really wanted to get out to meet Carlisle seniors.
How did you find ways to meet seniors? During the height of the pandemic, we called a lot of people to check in, and met others on Zoom, but it was difficult to get to know people until we started the drive-thru events. We hosted haircuts at the Fire Station, and for a time we held in-person exercise classes there as well. There were a number of other events, like grab-and-go subs, concerts—I went to every one so I could meet people.
How did you reach seniors who had difficulty leaving their homes? People who didn’t use a computer and couldn’t get on Zoom felt very isolated, and we were very concerned about them. We have a list of seniors whom we know live alone or are more at risk, so we called them regularly.
The COA has undergone a staff reorganization over the past few months. How has that impacted the organization? Angela Smith announced her retirement in December. She had done so much for the COA and was essentially doing two jobs at the same time, so I knew I couldn’t just rush out and fill her position. Instead, I started by talking with each of the staff to see who was interested in taking on more hours. The town had instituted a flat budget for FY21, so I knew any reorganization had to be budget-neutral. I decided to split up Angela’s responsibilities between the new positions and my own job, creating two full-time jobs from the existing part-time ones. It took a long time, but it worked.
How has the new full-time staff impacted COA programs and outreach? Having full-time employees is really a game changer. With four people in the office, our service to the community is more consistent and robust—and we’re always here to answer the phone. Linda Cavallo-Murphy, Program Manager, focuses on the newsletter and all COA programming. Carol Greuneich, Social Services Manager has been able to identify and apply for a number of grants for new programs that we did not have the capacity to manage previously. She has also started to reach out to people who haven’t been engaged with the COA before, and formed a new grief group and a care-giver support group.
What were some of the new programs the COA offered last year? The COA received three new grants in FY21, one of which was from CHNA 15, a partnership between the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and local social service agencies that funds community-based prevention and health promotion initiatives. Carol [Gueuneich] implemented Voices of Experience, a six-week online storytelling course that helped seniors learn to tell their personal narratives in compelling and exciting ways. Twelve people participated and shared some amazing stories via Zoom events, including a story from a man who was fox-holed during World War II, and another from the first person in Carlisle to adopt African-American children—every story was so interesting.
The COA also received a grant from the Massachusetts Council on Aging to fund a joy of movement dance program led by a trained dance therapist. The program was open to anyone, including people with limited mobility, memory issues and Parkinsons.
In addition, the COA received a grant from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation to ease food insecurity in town. We were able to partner with UTEC as part of their Madd Love Meals program, where at-risk kids learning culinary skills prepared food boxes that we purchased and distributed to seniors in town. Open Table also supplied free Healthy Helpings meal boxes including prepared meals, shelf-stable groceries and produce for 20 more households.
COA also serves residents under age 60. We have always served people with disabilities of any age plus residents over age 60. Starting July 1, Carlisle now has Community Chest funding to support residents under 60. We are currently trying to expand our reach and get connected with younger families because we just don’t know all of the families who might be in need. We have assistance available to help families in need, and we want those families to know there are funds for back-to-school backpack supplies, Staples gift cards, holiday gifts, and even summer camps.
How did the COA assist with the vaccination effort? Initially the [Local Emergency Planning Committee] LEPC thought the state would release vaccines to individual towns, and the committee worked for months preparing for that to happen. When that did not happen, we changed gears and tried to figure out how best we could help people get vaccinated using the demographic data we had gathered.
During one of the LEPC meetings, Kate Reid from the Select Board mentioned that she learned of a vaccine clinic in Lowell, through Lowell General Hospital, that was not on the state vaccine website. I visited the site and noticed that there were appointments available, so I started emailing people who were eligible to let them know. Over the next few months, hundreds of Carlisle residents were vaccinated there. Our staff was trained in how to register others so we could assist people who did not have access to a computer or had other problems trying to book an appointment.
I think the whole experience made people think of the COA in a slightly different way—that if the COA knows about you, it may be able to help you in some way. Many people now saw the value in interacting with us, and many have since agreed to receive our newsletter and signed up for other programs.
In what ways has the COA changed over the past year? With the advent of Zoom, we have no more geographic limitations—we’ve been able to offer programming from all over the world. Recently we had a speaker from Big Bend National Park in Texas, the Franklin Roosevelt Museum, and the MET. Now we can bring people to new and exotic places, and we have quite a few people joining us for those online adventures.
Another exciting change for the COA will be constructing a new storage shed near the Town Hall to house our medical equipment. The equipment is currently stored in the Highland Building, but conditions are not ideal and the site is not convenient for the staff. With the help of volunteer Clyde Kessel, we have been able to sort the equipment and remove anything in poor condition. Going forward, it will be much easier for staff to maintain and loan out items to those who need them.
How do you encourage people to take advantage of COA programs? I’m trying to position the COA so that we have the resources, the capacity, the talent and the people to try to meet the needs of Carlisle’s seniors. We want to add value for all seniors, whether they want to join a book group, learn line dancing or play Mah Jongg. In 2020 and 2021, we interacted with nearly half of the senior population in town, and one third participated in a COA program over that time.
There are always people in need, though, and it’s our job to find them. We want people who are isolated, alone or vulnerable to know that they can call us and we can help. We have Market Basket gift cards readily available for groceries, and fuel assistance grants for home heating from the Community Chest and the Friends of the COA for those who need it. While our community is spread out, and our office is small, we will use all available resources to continue to grow support services and programming for residents of all ages.
Published in The Carlisle Mosquito, September 1, 2021.