Highlighting the Helpers: Feeding seniors — body and soul

Deborah Trammell has been helping Allegheny County seniors for more than a decade. She’s never seen anything like this.

“They need food,” she told The Incline by phone. “It’s just a dearth of food.”  

A longtime volunteer with the In Service of Seniors program, Deborah says this pandemic has upended supply lines and support systems. Demand for the program’s food delivery service has spiked. Social isolation has been compounded by social distancing and, for some seniors, new technological hurdles for medical appointments and services. 

Deborah Trammell is a part-time realtor, a full-time accounting clerk at a West Mifflin steel plant, and a volunteer with the In Service of Seniors program. (📸: Photos submitted)

For many, this has been a crisis without the comfort of human contact. But volunteers like Deborah, a part-time real estate agent and full-time West Mifflin steelworker, remain human buoys for their senior participants, even if from afar. 

“We’re only supposed to put the (food) items we deliver inside the front door or leave them on the porch. We ask (the participant) to stay in the other room, and almost all the time they want to draw you into conversation because you might be the only person they see for weeks.”

Deborah added: “The hardest thing to not do now is hug somebody. Almost every time I would visit somebody or take them something before it was ‘Give me a hug’ as I left.”

Another program volunteer, Carol McCord, added: “I have been making calls to 17 seniors each week to check on them and assess their needs and well-being. … Some have many family members and friends that check on them and make sure they have what they need and others are not as fortunate. … They are definitely lonely and look forward to my calls. I will let them talk as long as they want.” 

This is the third installment in our Highlighting the Helpers series. Read the first and second and email us at hello@theincline.com if you know someone we should feature.

In Service of Seniors is a volunteer-based program from Wesley Family Services, and it provides “neighborly” support — normally this means rides to appointments, check-in calls, and accompanied shopping trips — free of charge to Allegheny County residents 60 and older. (These days the program is focused primarily on delivery and telephonic touchpoints.) 

The 60-and-up demographic is at greater risk, both from COVID-19 and from the side effects of the COVID-19 lockdown.  

Sarah Papperman, a team leader with In Service of Seniors, said during the pandemic the program has seen: 

  • A 60 percent increase in phone intakes. 
  • Food pantry deliveries increase from an average of <1 per week to an average of 16 per week.
  • Food access trips double from an average of 12.7 per week to an average of 24 per week. 

Papperman said prior to the COVID-19 crisis, volunteers were visiting with an average of four participants per week by phone or in-person. 

“We now have volunteers matched with 189 participants to make weekly check-in phone calls,” she added.  

But the program’s volunteer numbers have also grown, with 46 added in the last month and a half.

For volunteers like Carol, who’s been with the program for over a year, the work is particularly rewarding: “You feel like you are making a contribution, and they are grateful beyond measure.” 

Deborah recalled her start with the program more than 10 years ago. 

“This isn’t a story I tell a lot of people, but at 57 I was baptized. And this work is my testimony. I woke up one day and said ‘What do I do with this gift?’ and I was spoken to and God said give back. That same day in the Post-Gazette there was an ad for In Service of Seniors and I called and that was it. … I’ve always loved older people. I had a bunch of aunts and uncles who lived into their 90s, and older people were just fun to be around — they were no-nonsense and I enjoyed being around them.” 

Deborah continued: “Humans need humans. We have got to help each other. And if knowing a food delivery you made will keep someone going for two weeks or more … if that doesn’t bring you some joy, I don’t know what will.” 

If you’re also interested in volunteering to help seniors through the In Service of Seniors program, head here.

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