Q & A with Ann Marie Cook Lifespan’s president and CEO

Serving older adults (including distributing robot pets), despite COVID-19

Interview by Mike Costanza

CookLifespan of Greater Rochester has long served older adults, their families and their caregivers in the 10 counties it covers. All have been able to turn to the nonprofit for help dealing with the challenges, and partaking of the joys, that the years can bring. COVID-19 forced the agency to alter some of its services and programs, but Lifespan intends to get back on track as soon as possible. In Good Health spoke to Ann Marie Cook, Lifespan’s president and CEO in mid May.

Q. In a nutshell, what is Lifespan’s mission?

A. Lifespan helps older adults and family caregivers access services and get information and training on various topics, but essentially helps older adults take on, we say, both the challenges and opportunities of longer life.

Q. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York State on PAUSE executive order forced all nonessential businesses to close as of March 22. How did that order, and the threat of the virus, affect Lifespan’s work?

A. We fall under services for older adults, which all are considered an essential service. The disease impacts older adults so we’ve taken this very, very seriously. We’ve had to curtail some services — so much we do is in the home, and a lot of that has been curtailed. But we’ve also have had to develop new services during this COVID-19 outbreak.

Q. About half of Lifespan’s 155 employees are working from home, and the 300 volunteers who usually donate their time to your agency each day haven’t been able to come in. Are your offices still open to the public?

A. We’re not closed, but we don’t accept people to walk into the agency anymore.

Q. Does Lifespan still do home visits or provide other in-person services for older adults?

A. We didn’t feel comfortable going into older adults’ homes until we understood what kind of protective equipment we needed and what they needed. Most of that work was curtailed dramatically. We are doing home visits to some clients who we feel may be at risk.

Q. What are some of the new services that you’re providing?

We are delivering food to people who cannot get out. Food delivery, prescription delivery. We’re also delivering masks to people, so that when they do go out — though we’re not encouraging that — they at least have the appropriate protective wear on their faces. One of the other services we started was kind of a daily check-in call. We have some of our volunteers calling out to older adults who live alone, and the loneliness and the isolation has been getting to people. That has been heartbreaking.

The other thing is we hear a lot from families who have a loved one in a nursing home, and are trying to get advice about what they can do to have more access to their loved one. Those have been heartbreaking calls, because they’re used to seeing their loved ones. Their family member might have dementia, so they don’t understand why the family’s not coming in. The hard part for the staff is listening to the concerns of folks, and not having a lot of options in which we can help them.

We have also been sending out information to our clients on a regular basis. We’re helping people get answers, in terms of the stimulus money. It has been difficult to get all the information, but we’re trying to do that for people.

Q. You also mentioned something called a “robot pet.” What is that?

A. I’ve had it sitting on my lap. It looks like a real pet — a cat or a dog. It does move a little bit so you feel movement. If you touch it, it purrs or does a little bark. We got a shipment of the pets from the State Office for Aging [New York State Office for the Aging], and we’ve distributed those pets to older adults who are living at home alone. I can’t begin to tell you how much of a difference it’s made in peoples’ lives. For individuals who were used to having a pet, and unfortunately can’t do all of the work of a pet now, this has been a great comfort.

Q. How are you safeguarding Lifespan employees who are working onsite?

A. We are taking every measure possible to make sure that the staff is safe. Those that are working in the office have to wear a mask. Some have been tested — we’re essential workers that can be tested. We’re also practicing maximum social distancing. We have “one-way streets” [corridors] now, so people don’t face each other when they walk. We’ve stopped in-person meetings and education programs and trainings, and moved to a webinar format. We have deep-cleaned the agency, and clean it every night.

Q. The threat of COVID-19 has receded enough that some businesses and organizations in the Finger Lakes region can qualify to begin reopening. What are your plans for reopening?

A. We’re calling it not a reopen plan — because were not closed — but a “transition-back to-normal-plan.” We have a lot more staff coming back into the office to do our work. We will figure out a date at which we can also welcome back volunteers. Those kinds of details we’re going to decide after June 1st. First, we’re going to get all of our staff back here.

Q. When do you hope to have all of your staff back onsite?

A. We’re hoping by June 1. A slow transition for a couple of weeks, and then we’ll figure out when we can bring back in volunteers. Also, when we’ll be able to unlock the doors, because we’ll have enough safeguards back in place to welcome older adults back in the building.

Q. When might your clients be able to enter your offices again?

A. It will be sometime in June. I don’t believe it will be June 1.