Elderly volunteers staying at home due to COVID-19

  • Courtesy of Donna Olivas-Kaohi

    A group of Retired and Senior Volunteer Program participants shows completion certificates at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kalaheo earlier this year. RSVP programs have been suspended since mid-March amid the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of volunteers and those they come in contact with.

LIHU‘E — Volunteer work has changed for Dr. Dennis Pezzato.

Some of his work as a behavioral specialist looked like meeting with people to provide support and giving talks and presenting workshops about caregiving. He was also a volunteer at Kaua‘i Hospice and provides caregiver support.

The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, with which Pezzato volunteers, has 300 active volunteers around the island. Since mid-March, the program suspended most of its work out of an abundance of caution.

Now, work for Pezzato is remote, including calls and emails sharing his knowledge and offering help to caregivers during these tough times.

Donna Olivas-Kaohi, program director of RSVP, said the decision was made because of the uncertainty of who may be a carrier of the virus. RSVP provides volunteer opportunities for those 55 and older, a group most at risk of contracting and experiencing severe symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

Olivas-Kaohi said that in mid-March they began suspending programs out of concern for their volunteers and the public. However, she noticed something: volunteers understood the risks, but still wanted to help.

“It’s sad because they wanted to still volunteer,” she said. “A majority said they still wanted to volunteer.”

Pezzato falls into that category. He’s 75, turning 76 next month, and has underlying conditions including asthma. He’s erring on the side of caution not only in his volunteer efforts but also in washing his hands frequently and sanitizing his groceries upon bringing them into his home. Hence, he’s taken to remote work.

Most of the opportunities RSVP volunteers participate in are programs where they would have direct contact with the public, like giving tours at museums or National Tropical Botanical Garden or manning information desks at government offices, for example.

But it doesn’t stop at just protecting their own volunteer staff. It’s for everybody they are in contact with, too.

“Many of our volunteers are also caregivers,” Olivas-Kaohi said. Social distancing and isolating has been one of the leading measures the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests to limiting the spread of the virus.

Proceeding with precaution during this global pandemic has reduced volunteer staff across the island.

Half of the volunteer staff at the American Red Cross is out. Not out helping people, but out of the force.

Island wide, ARC Executive Director Padraic Gallagher estimates there are about 50 regular volunteers. After concerns for COVID-19, he’s looking at about 20 volunteers who would be ready to help at a moment’s notice. Many of his typical volunteer staff tend to be older, he said.

Life goes on through the pandemic, and heavy rains and flooding continue to keep his office busy. Last week, staff and volunteeers were helping at a local shelter.

Additionally, one of the hardest parts of the time we’re in, Gallagher said, is sifting through the changing information.

“Sifting through all the information and distilling it to the correct information and giving it to the right people” has been tough,” he said. “COVID-19 is new for everybody.”

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Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or sbodon@thegardenisland.com.

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