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Legislative Viewpoint: Adapting During COVID-19 Crisis

Susannah Whipps, Representative - 2nd Franklin DistrictSusannah Whipps, Representative - 2nd Franklin DistrictI’m writing this at my kitchen table. Normally I’d be sitting in my office at the historic Massachusetts State House where I have a view of the Golden Dome from my office - if you stand on the window sill and crick your neck a bit. Since March and this pandemic, I’ve only traveled to the State House on weekends to pick up my mail. It’s a strange feeling to pull into the garage under the building and see no other cars. Even more strange to walk the empty halls which are usually full of hustle and bustle; lobbyists, visitors, demonstrators, tourists, and colleagues. Last weekend the only folks I saw were a few rangers.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately worried about our senior citizens, many of whom live alone.

The legislators continue to file bills and work remotely. Usually by this time of year we have a budget completed and on the governor’s desk. Not this year. We currently are working on a 1/12 budget to carry us through July, the first month of the fiscal year. We’ll most likely do this for the next few months until we can grasp what revenue in the upcoming year will look like.

I’m definitely saving on hours commuted, which is good as I’ve been needed in my district. When the stay at home advisory was announced, our office began taking calls the likes of which we have never seen. Constituent services have always been the most important part of this position. The number of unemployment claims filed started to grow exponentially. Our email inboxes and voicemail would fill up as soon as we emptied them. My legislative aide Rachel and I serve as the “go-between” for our constituents to many state agencies, but the vast majority of the calls in recent months have been regarding unemployment claims. The process is new to many people who for the first time in their lives find themselves without a job. The administration worked to expand their capacity and increase the number of people to process claims as quickly as possible. We still take calls every day from people looking for assistance and guidance as they navigate various programs and we’re always happy to help.

Beyond the financial distress COVID-19 has caused, I’ve noticed a great deal of emotional distress. Many of my friends haven’t been able to visit with or hug loved ones, especially those who live in assisted living or nursing homes. Kids are missing their friends, teachers, and staff from their schools. High school seniors missed proms, graduations, and parties. I applaud the creativity of some folks who have organized parades and ‘no-contact, socially distant’ celebrations, but it’s just not the same. My niece, who is expecting her first child any day now, had a ‘drive-by’ baby shower. I ordered a gift locally, paid for it online, picked it up curbside, drove to their location, and tossed it out the window of my car at the expectant parents as I sped through the driveway.

Desmond Tutu once said, “A person is a person through other persons; you can’t be human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.” I’ve spent a lot of time lately worried about our senior citizens, many of whom live alone. Many of whom rely on their local senior centers and LifePath’s congregate meal sites. To them it’s not just lunch. It’s sharing. It’s socializing. It’s being human. When speaking with Tracy Gaudet of the Orange Senior Center, she said, “These folks are my family,” and I believe all of the people who work at our region’s COAs feel the same way.

We all understand that state closures and stay at home advisories had to happen to protect our Greatest Generation, but even before COVID-19 there were numerous studies about social isolation and loneliness in our senior population. Loneliness and isolation affect physical health. Some research suggests that isolation in senior citizens is linked to poor eating habits, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. LifePath, and many similar organizations who have Meals on Wheels programs, are combatting this by not only delivering nutritious meals to our seniors, but also providing an important welfare check on their clients. That delivery person might be the only personal interaction a senior has for several days or even longer. I’m so grateful for everyone who does this vital work for our communities.

As we move forward and start to inch our way through reopening the Commonwealth, I ask you all to think about your neighbors. A simple phone call or card could really brighten someone’s day and if you are struggling with this strange “new normal,” please reach out for assistance. LifePath can make referrals to resources, as can your local councils on aging, or feel free to give my office a call at (978) 895-9606. I serve the towns of Athol, Belchertown (A), Erving, Gill, New Salem, Orange, Petersham, Phillipston, Royalston, Templeton, Warwick, and Wendell.

In closing, I want to thank all of the folks who have been working throughout this difficult time. As I travel this district, I continue to see the very best in people. The teams providing services to our local seniors have risen to the occasion. The volunteers at our local food pantries have worked non-stop to assist those experiencing food insecurity. Our state and municipal employees have done their very best to serve all citizens and have worked to keep people safe and informed.