‘I’m happy you don’t forget about us’: Meals program helps seniors feel connected
Before COVID-19 reached Melbourne, if 82-year-old Raissa Outchitel wasn't busy attending a party, she was playing board games with her friends.
But like most people in the city, her active social life ground to a halt. She has been reduced to Skype calls with her daughter and phone chats with other members of her Russian and Jewish seniors clubs.
Delivery driver Scott Irwin with Raissa Outchitel. Credit:Jason South
"Every month, we had three or four parties before coronavirus," the South Melbourne resident said. "[Now] I suffer because I can't go out to the street. I'm afraid of coronavirus because people my age die."
But a pilot meals program run by Port Phillip Council to compensate for the closure of the municipality's 23 multicultural seniors clubs is helping Mrs Outchitel feel connected and cared for.
The Cultural Seniors Meals Program delivers much more than food to its 42 participants – it provides welfare checks, links to services, language-appropriate COVID-19 and wellbeing information, and a friendly face.
Through a translator, Mrs Outchitel, who was born in Ukraine, said she looked forward to delivery driver Scott Irwin's visit each week.
"I'm happy that you don't forget about us," she said in English.
Mr Irwin said many of the participants craved human connection.
"[Mrs Outchitel] is always asking me to come in and have a cup of tea with her, which obviously, given the restrictions, I can't quite do," he said.
"But when that lifts, it will be great to have another good chat with her over a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits."
Mr Irwin said being part of the program was also helping him get through the pandemic.
"Given the current situation and especially the demographic that I'm delivering to, it makes me feel like I'm contributing to making their life that little bit easier," he said.
"It's a bit of joy and you can actually hear it in their voice when they open the door and say hello; they're very happy."
The federally funded pilot program, which started in June and initially ran for eight weeks, has been extended and is expected to continue until the end of the year. Up to 300 people are eligible for the service.
Port Phillip mayor Bernadene Voss said increased digitalisation had left some senior residents feeling lonelier.
"We know how important social connections are to emotional wellbeing, and it’s more important than ever to support vulnerable members of our community," she said. "We’re looking forward to the day our seniors groups can safely meet again in person.”
Thursday is R U OK? Day, when Australians are reminded to ask the people in their lives that question.
University of Melbourne clinical psychologist Nicholas Van Dam said checking in on people’s welfare was especially important during the pandemic while social isolation had increased.
“That sense of knowing that there are people out there when things are not going well for you, who will check in on you and will make sure you're OK and … give you that extra push to get help when you need it, I think it's really critical,” he said.
“It's really fundamental that people stay connected.”
Although she misses her friends and family, Mrs Outchitel said she wasn't lonely and remained positive, despite six months alone.
The Holocaust survivor, who lost much of her family in World War II, said she hoped younger generations in Australia would never know war.
"[The pandemic] is much, much easier," she said.
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