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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

How Food Insecurity Complicates Coronavirus Care For Montana Seniors


Senior citizens are particularly susceptible to COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Those caring for the elderly now have to be even more careful to avoid inadvertently harming the same people they’re trying to help. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

How do you feed Missoula’s elderly while also not creating the breeding grounds for a viral outbreak?

"Right now we’re restricting it to four people at a table, although some tables have one person and some tables have two people, and they are six feet apart."

That’s John Nugent, Board President of the Missoula Senior Center.

The South Higgins Avenue non-profit boasts a membership of about 650 who each pay a $25 annual fee. Under normal circumstances that grants them access to a ballroom for square dancing, exercise facilities and Thursday night bingo, among other amenities.

But because of the emerging COVID-19 threat, the center has scrapped all group and social activities – except one.

"As of right now, we’re continuing our meal program because a lot of the people that are here have housing, transportation, nutrition and social isolation challenges."

The center contracts with Missoula Aging Services to provide lunches for low income seniors who otherwise may not be able to afford the Center’s annual membership fee.

Nugent says they typically serve about 120 meals daily, Monday through Friday.

That’s more than twice the crowd size public health officials are recommending to try to slow the spread of the COVID-19 illness, which disproportionately affects seniors.

Missoula City County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy wants a health officer to take a closer look at the Senior Center’s dining arrangement.

"I will have to hear about this particular service, the Senior Center – which is a necessary service – and see how that can be done more safely."

Missoula Aging Services CEO Susan Kohler doesn’t necessarily agree with the continuation of the Senior Center’s luncheon.

Kohler, however, says it does highlight a legitimate concern.

"People are accustomed to coming together, seeing their friends at lunch every day or a couple of times a week. Being told, 'You’ve got to go home and get your meal another way' – it might not even be a problem that they can get a meal as much as it is that they become socially isolated. It’s a complex issue beyond the medical aspect of it."

The Senior Center’s John Nugent puts it another way.

"We are mature beings and we can do our own risk assessment and make our own decision as to whether we want to go out or not."

The Missoula City-County Health Department issued an order Monday closing local bars and limiting restaurant service. It does not apply to food services that are a sole source of food for a population such as nursing homes or hospitals. Nugent believes the senior center’s luncheon falls under that exemption.

"And we’re not going to put people on the street without food. These people rely on us and we’re going to provide that until we can find an alternative."

He acknowledges it’s a delicate balancing act.

"We spend a lot of time talking about what is the greater good. These are very difficult decisions."

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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