Elder Services of Berkshire County is closing in on 50 years of service. Executive Director Chris McLaughlin stresses that the nonprofit could not do what it does without its volunteers who selflessly share their time and talents to help make the lives of their neighbors as fulfilling as they can be. Big Y has supported Elder Services through its Community Bag Program.
Tell us about Elder Services of Berkshire County.
We were founded in 1974 and are an ASAP, Aging Services Access Point. At that time, there was a statewide effort to create an infrastructure to implement both federal and state programs designed to benefit seniors. In about a year and a half, we will celebrate our 50th Anniversary. Our mission is to provide Berkshire elders, people with disabilities and caregivers the opportunity to live with dignity, independence and self-determination and to achieve the highest possible quality of life.
What sets you apart from other nonprofits in your community?
What sets us apart is that no other organization in Berkshire County is able to do what we do. As an ASAP, we have a unique contract with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs to provide a variety of state programs targeted at seniors. This includes placing caregivers, like home health aides and homemakers, in seniors’ homes to help them be able to continue living independently. In addition, we are an AAA , Area Agency on Aging, and by virtue of that distinction we provide federal programs (Meals on Wheels being one) to seniors. Therefore, we are unique in that we are the only Agency contracted to provide state and federal programs to seniors in Berkshire County.
We are one of only two ASAPs/AAAs throughout the whole Commonwealth that operates its own kitchen. This gives us the ability to control the type and quality of the food we provide and to implement changes based on feedback from our consumers.
We are the only Agency contracted to provide State and federal programs to seniors in Berkshire County.
What essential services do you provide to the community?
In terms of essential services, we saw our services as being even more essential during COVID, particularly during the darkest days, beginning in March 2020, when we were under a state of emergency and stay-at-home order. People didn’t have contact with family and friends and were isolated and, in some cases, becoming anxious. We were the ones making calls checking in: Are you OK? Do you need anything?
Our meal program continued to support them, not only by providing nutritious meals but also by our drivers providing invaluable wellness checks. In more than two-and-a-half years of an unprecedented pandemic, our kitchen didn’t miss one day of providing meals. I am very proud of our kitchen staff, our drivers, those working at senior meal sites and the staff of the entire organization who kept it together, pivoted as needed and remained committed to the mission at a time when people needed them more than ever.
Tell us a story that illustrates the good work you are doing.
With so many programs, it’s difficult to pick just one story but here’s a story about our SHINE program. SHINE is an acronym for Serving the Health Insurance Needs of Everyone. This is a group of volunteers who work with people to make sure they get the right Medicare, Medicaid and prescription drug coverage. These kinds of things are confusing and foreign to most people. The client in this story greatly benefited from the SHINE program.
“Mary”, a married woman in her 70s, has been the primary caregiver, not only for her spouse, who has significant health issues, but also for her four grandchildren she is raising, all under the age of 10. She initially contacted Elder Services because she was struggling to afford her medications due to the extra expenses in the home.
When she met with a volunteer SHINE counselor to review her options, it became apparent that Mary had been doing a great job of caring for her spouse and her four grandkids, but not such a great job of caring for herself.
The SHINE counselor helped her apply for the Mass Health Caregiver Program, a program that assists adults other than parents, caring for minor children. This program reduced her insurance costs by hundreds of dollars each month. And she was able to take advantage of other preventative health benefits, including dental care.
The SHINE counselor also helped her connect with the State Home Care Program, which provided her access to a case manager and much needed respite services. Additional support allowed Mary to address her own needs. She continues to participate in Elder Services Caregiver Support Program, where she finds friendship, support and practical caregiving solutions.
What is your greatest achievement or contribution to the community?
I think what I am most proud of is the fact that during COVID the Agency remained committed to seniors. Particularly early in COVID, there were some very dark days, a lot of confusion, a lot of people who were isolated from their family and friends, but our staff remained focused and continued to do what they have always done.
In some cases, we made phone calls as opposed to visiting our clients at home, which was understandable. Regardless, the Agency was open every single day and our staff continued to make sure that our clients had everything they needed to feel safe and well supported.
What do you want people to know about Elder Services of Berkshire County?
We have many volunteers, but if I’m being honest, and this should come as no surprise to anybody, during COVID, we lost several of them. I would say we lost a significant number of our volunteers, because at the time, some volunteers were reluctant to spend time with our clients and some clients preferred not to come into close contact with volunteers.
So, we lost a fair number of volunteers. Things are starting to change and we are starting to reengage with them and get people back and comfortable with the notion of having people go into a home or drive a client. That has been a challenge, but it’s starting to get somewhat better. Volunteers are critical to our Agency and those we serve. We certainly welcome new volunteers to our Agency!
Volunteers are critical to our Agency and those we serve.
How are you using the funds you’ve received from the Big Y Community Bag Program?
Two of our programs come to mind. When I’m out in the community, people talk about Meals on Wheels. Everybody seems to have a mother, grandmother, father, brother or somebody in his or her family who has benefitted from Meals on Wheels. This program will benefit from the Big Y Community Bag Program funds.
The second program I hear about most is the SHINE program. People tell me how confusing they find Medicare, Medicaid and prescription drug plans but when they meet with their SHINE counselor, it really gets them to a better place. It’s also a program that’s underfunded by about $100,000 a year. The Big Y bag program would help offset the deficit in SHINE.
Is there anything that you would like to add?
According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs, individuals who receive SHINE counseling incur on average about $1,700 less each year in insurance premiums and/or healthcare costs. If you multiply $1,700 by the approximately 3,000 we anticipate serving with this program, it really is a very significant impact in Berkshire County