Taking Care of NYC Seniors During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Northeast  |  April 7, 2020
Due to social distancing guidelines, volunteers leave Tzu Chi’s care packages at the doorstep or gate. Photo by Jupiter Chiou

With a stay-at-home order in effect in New York state, volunteers in the Greater New York City area began to contact seniors by phone to see if they needed any help. They learned that due to the pandemic, many seniors were unable to buy food because they didn’t have transportation and worried about the risks of taking public transit. 

Tzu Chi volunteer Sansan Chiang couldn’t bear the thought of these elderly folks worrying about their next meal. She and her husband Eric decided to gather a team of volunteers to assemble care packages of food then deliver them to seniors at their homes.

The first team comprised the Chiangs and Tzu Chi volunteer Peter Chu, who all arrived at the Tzu Chi New York office in the morning to organize and pack the food items, preparing to distribute the bags to seniors living alone at an apartment building in Queens. Eric Chiang knew that his kids would worry since they called their parents every day to remind them not to go out often, but the couple insisted on joining the relief effort to help out those in need.

Tzu Chi volunteers fill care packages destined for seniors. Photo by Jupiter Chiou
Each member of the team takes 15 minutes to wash their hands and put on protective gear before preparing the care packages. Photo by Jupiter Chiou

Before preparing the packages and delivering them, each volunteer put on a single-use protective gown, two layers of gloves, masks, and caps; and even wrapped their cellphones in clear plastic to prevent infections. Sansan used to be a practicing nurse, so she was very familiar with all the steps necessary to reduce the risk of infection, and showed everyone how to put on and take off their gloves correctly.

For the recipients to have peace of mind, when we come out to work, we must take great care to protect ourselves even more.

To protect both the volunteers and seniors, Sansan Chiang makes sure the personal protection equipment is of the highest standard. Photo by Jupiter Chiou
The team prepares more than 20 packages for delivery to seniors’ homes during the week. Photo by Daphne Liu

The foods included in the packages were beans, nuts, potatoes, and canned vegetables, items chosen after taking into consideration their nutritional value and storage duration. The volunteers also added Tzu Chi Journals to give the seniors some reading material that would offer moral support. 

As a final touch, Eric Chiang attached stickers with the Tzu Chi logo onto the outside of the bags, although it took him quite some time to do it, with the protective gloves and gown he was wearing inhibiting his movements.

“I can really understand our healthcare workers’ hard work now. They have to wear such protective clothing all day, and it’s very inconvenient and uncomfortable. These little things that we’re doing are really nothing in comparison to what they do.”

Tzu Chi volunteer Eric Chiang realizes working while wearing personal protective gear is not easy. Photo by Jupiter Chiou
Peter Chu, a student, currently taking online classes, donates his time to do his part in helping seniors during the pandemic. Photo by Daphne Liu

After everything was ready, Eric and Sansan drove to the designated apartment building located about three miles from the Tzu Chi New York office. As they approached, they could see fellow Tzu Chi volunteer Susan Su – who herself lives in the building – waving to them enthusiastically. Although everyone was wearing masks and goggles, that didn’t prevent them from expressing their heartfelt joy and gratitude for being able to help the seniors. 

Irene Chen was also waiting for the delivery. A member of the homeowner’s association, she had been continuously monitoring the residents in the apartment building, calling daily to make sure they were okay. And for many, times were tough, she explained, “Everyone’s so happy knowing you’re delivering food today. Some people had already been eating just cabbage for more than ten days. The three boxes of eggs given to us by a neighbor were so precious that we didn’t want to eat them. We’re really thankful to Tzu Chi.” 

Quarantine affects the elderly the most, they not only have to worry about their health, but also worry about lack of food because they cannot go out to shop. They really need help.

Quarantine affects the elderly the most, they not only have to worry about their health, but also worry about lack of food because they cannot go out to shop. They really need help.

To prevent infections, the volunteers gave most of the nine packages of food they had brought, each weighing more than 5 kg, to the homeowner’s association to deliver to the apartment building’s occupants. When one received his package, he exclaimed, “Too much, too much,” while smiling widely, obviously thankful for the help.

Susan Su decided to personally deliver a package to Grandma Ma, a 90-year-old lady who lives alone and has trouble seeing and hearing. Susan waited five minutes after ringing the doorbell, then asked the homeowner’s association to call Grandma Ma on the phone to let her know there was someone at the door.

A resident expresses her thanks after receiving a package of food. Photo by Jupiter Chiou
Grandma Ma thanks Tzu Chi volunteers as she receives her package of food directly at her door. Photo by Jupiter Chiou

When Grandma Ma finally opened the door, she recognized Susan and thanked her for the package. This vulnerable elderly lady is just one example of the many seniors at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, it was quite a blessing that Susan Su lives in this building. When New York’s COVID-19 cases started to increase in mid-March, she contacted the homeowner’s association, and this care package delivery was the direct result of her community outreach efforts.

“Although I have to stay home and have less opportunity to volunteer, with my phone, I can still do good deeds.”

Seeing the needs of senior citizens living alone, like many in this apartment building, Tzu Chi has now contacted a major food distribution company and requested their assistance in providing food in various communities.

As for this team of volunteers, they will continue to deliver food packages to seniors’ homes while the pandemic runs its course.

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