A woman walks into the Long Beach Senior Center on Fourth Street in Alamitos Beach Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Staff shortages. Increased isolation. Technological challenges.

Senior service providers, like so many other businesses, faced significant hurdles during the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike in other industries, these businesses were serving a population that was already vulnerable to isolation and illness.

Across the board, senior care providers in Long Beach had to shift. Senior Helpers, a home care provider, had to mitigate the risk of bringing the virus into clients’ homes, while the business models for nonprofit Heart of Ida and the city’s senior centers—which rely on people coming in person to use or request service—were upended.

A shortage of workers was one of the most immediate challenges when COVID hit.

Senior Helpers, for example, couldn’t function without its caregivers.

The agency continued its home visits, even in the height of lockdowns, and caregivers’ jobs became even more tedious to ensure the health and safety of themselves and their clients.

“Have they been anywhere? Have they been exposed? Do they have a temperature? These are all questions a caregiver has to answer before clocking into a home,” Senior Helpers owner Julia LaPlount said.

But wages for home care providers tend to be low, and LaPlount said larger unemployment checks during COVID caused her to lose workers.

“A lot of our caregivers just quit. They just wouldn’t show up,” LaPlount said. “When you assigned them shifts, they just didn’t answer, and they collected unemployment.”

While LaPlount said her agency would ideally have two-to-three caregivers on staff for every client, that ratio fell to one caregiver per client—11 of each—during the worst of COVID.

To make up for this gap, LaPlount, her grandson and her daughter—who had been handling the administrative tasks—also served as caregivers, a responsibility that LaPlount said they have only recently been able to relinquish as more caregivers have been brought on.

Heart of Ida, meanwhile, is a smaller operation with anywhere from two to four people on its staff, though the nonprofit relies on volunteers to provide many of its services. These volunteers came in steadily through the pandemic, but on the administrative side, the group’s founder Dina Berg still had to put in long hours to help sign people up for new virtual programs that were in high demand while the nonprofit’s base of operations at the Long Beach Senior Center was closed.

There were financial difficulties, as well.

As a nonprofit, Heart of Ida has always run a tight ship, but the group had to end certain programs, such as a “Safe at Home” initiative that helped install grab bars and other safety amenities in clients’ homes, that had previously provided necessary funding. The loss of revenue forced Berg to rethink what programming was essential for her to maintain.

“It made us reassess what we needed, where our programs should be,” she said of the pandemic. “It really just made us stop and think about us as an organization in the future and what we want.”

And during the pandemic, one priority became clear: combating isolation.

“You could tell they were kind of starting to lose it,” Berg said of some lonely clients.

While the popularity of digital tools like Zoom skyrocketed during the pandemic, adapting to new technologies posed a challenge to some seniors.

So Heart of Ida and Senior Helpers both fell back to a more traditional method of communication: calling clients regularly to check in on them.

“When you can’t see seniors, you still have to establish some kind of contact with them,” LaPlount said. “We spent a lot of time just on the phone, calling them and seeing how they were doing.”

But the telephone didn’t address every need.

For the city, Zoom was a necessity for seniors to participate in virtual classes that focused on topics like flower arrangements and painting, where seniors would use their own supplies or materials.

“It was tricky,” Recreation Superintendent Heidi Mazas said of trying to get seniors used to Zoom. “You would get them into class, and then the next day they would have trouble.”

City staff had to get creative. One way to address the problem was by starting classes with the ins and outs of Zoom before getting into the actual topic of the class.

It’s a change that Mazas said will stay for the long term, as the city will continue to prioritize digital inclusion in its senior programming. One example is the city’s new “tech days,” which are held once a week.

“Now, we have it consistently on our calendars,” Mazas said.

Even with service providers’ best efforts, the pandemic still had a deep impact on seniors in Long Beach. Berg noticed an older woman develop a limp, and Mazas still knows seniors that are fearful of returning to in-person events, even over a year after the centers reopened.

As the needs of the senior population in Long Beach continue to evolve, so too will the organizations tasked with nurturing them.

“It’s a personal business,” LaPlount said, “and it needs to be treated that way.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.