Around King County, community meals return with a lifeline of nutrition and good company
As music blasts through the gym at Northgate Community Center, seniors move their bodies at their own pace. A woman walks in place and turns her head back and forth. A man sits on the floor and stretches his legs. A group is walking around the perimeter of the gymnasium.
Azmera Gebre calls the walking group in Tigrinya, their native language, and encourages them to pump their arms while walking. She joins the trio and they all laugh as she reflects their movements. It’s almost lunchtime; smells of cooked vegetables and injera, a spongy flatbread being prepared emanate from the neighboring kitchen.
Exercise and lunches are an integral part of the East African Seniors Meal Program held weekly at Northgate for East African residents in the Seattle area aged 60 and over. Those who come also pray and talk about their shared experiences – many are immigrants or refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea and neighboring countries.
The program offers more than a nutritious meal – it has been a lifeline for the East African elderly community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Providers make sure every participant is immunized, bring in health workers to monitor blood pressure, and send the elderly home with groceries, hand sanitizer and transportation cards. They also have the ability to socialize, a convenience that was sorely lacking when ordering stay-at-home.
The East African Meal Program is one of the sites of a community catering network coordinated by Sound Generations, in partnership with other organizations. Sound Generations serves the elderly and adults with disabilities of King County and is one of a dozen nonprofit organizations benefiting donations from readers to the Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.
Sound Generations, previously called Senior Services, has been operating in King County for over 60 years and is the largest full-service provider for seniors and caregivers in Washington State. The association focuses on four main concerns: food security, transport, health and well-being and support services.
The pandemic forced the nonprofit to change the way it delivers its services, and the impacts of the pandemic have underscored the importance of the resources provided by Sound Generations. The effects of social isolation particularly hit the elderly, a population already vulnerable to loneliness. Deep and lasting loneliness can impact physical health, putting older people at increased risk for certain illnesses, as well as mental health, exacerbating or leading to symptoms of clinical disorders such as depression. Experts say this may be especially true for immigrant seniors, women, and those with low incomes.
The pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of members of the group, said Michael Neguse, a community activist who helped start the Northgate program about three years ago. They were isolated and unable to reach ethnic community centers or churches. Other senior centers have closed, but even if one were open there would likely be a language barrier preventing seniors from attending.
Neguse often received calls from elderly people in East Africa, asking when the program would resume.
“They contacted me whenever they had a problem,” he said. “They kept saying they had had enough. They were in quarantine at home and they were missing parts of the meeting for lunch and socializing. ”
The Community Dining program serves approximately 20,000 meals per month at 19 locations in King County. Some offer one type of cuisine, like weekly Polynesian, Latino, or Ukrainian meals, for example, and others offer a range of dining options and special lunches for holidays and birthdays. About half have reopened their buildings for indoor dining, with a smaller capacity than before the pandemic. The others offer take-away meals.
In addition to Meals on Wheels, a delivery program for seniors and caregivers who may have difficulty shopping or cooking, the organization is on track to provide nearly 750,000 meals this year, according to Brittany Blue. , responsible for the association’s marketing and philanthropy. officer. This is an increase from 2020, when both programs provided over 600,000 meals.
Also in 2020, Sound Generations transportation volunteers provided approximately 12,500 rides for seniors to health care appointments; caregiver support helped approximately 400 caregivers through individual counseling and group sessions; and the regional geriatric assessment team provided assessments and interventions for 81 elderly people who were worsening towards crisis.
For the Community Dining program, the different offerings are what make it unique, Blue said. Chefs watch the community walk through their door and make sure the food is culturally appropriate, rather than asking diners to acclimatize or eat foods they may not be familiar with.
“You don’t have to give up your culture to eat well,” said Blue.
But before eating, they whet their appetite by exercising. One of the women in the marching trio is Degnesh Mengesha, who is in her sixties and immigrated from Ethiopia about 15 years ago. She suffers from high blood pressure, so she isn’t able to get much exercise in her Ballard home, where she lives alone, like about three-quarters of the participants in Sound Generations’ food safety programs. But in the Northgate program, she can move around under supervision, and her blood pressure has dropped since she started attending the exercise sessions.
“It’s good for keeping in shape and for coordination,” Mengesha said through a translator.
When she was done talking, she joined her two exercise mates and continued their walk in the gym.
In King County, over 40,000 King County residents were born in East Africa, and the community has grown rapidly in recent years. The population is largely concentrated in Southeast Seattle, but the number of residents has increased in North Seattle, which community members attribute in part to gentrification.
The group that comes to the Northgate program is smaller than before the pandemic, when about 50 people came each week. Each participant wears a mask and, during meals, sits at the end of long tables set apart from each other. Each must also present proof of vaccination. They go from the gym to a multi-purpose room next to the kitchen, and after a prayer, Gebre pulls out a tray of soup bowls while a worker pours portions into plates and another organizes bags of groceries.
During the pandemic, Sound Generations heard stories from seniors on limited incomes who had to choose between paying for medicine or a nutritious meal. Organizers also realized they needed to add more services than meals and exercise, Blue said. So on this Tuesday, for example, a table in the corner of the room had stacks of transport brochures and flyers, with bus maps and instructions for getting an ORCA card.
“It wasn’t okay for us to say ‘come to a meal’ and then ‘you have to go here for extra resources’,” she said. “They have so many needs, so we wanted to take it one step further to meet all of their needs. “
As they leave, each guest takes a bag of groceries to take along like kale, butter and lentils. They will be back next week for the same meal, exercise and socializing.
“Especially during COVID, people were alone,” Gebre said. “When they get together, you see their happiness. Which makes me happy.”