Isolated in their homes, Petaluma seniors grapple with new challenges

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Senior Cafe lunches for pickup, 707-765-8488. Must call a day in advance, and contributions are welcomed but not required.

To sign up for Meals on Wheels or You Are Not Alone phone calls from volunteers, 707-765-8488.

To volunteer to call seniors with You Are Not Alone, email

For three years, Edith Schulte has held the same midday routine Monday through Friday, arriving at the Senior Café next to Lucchesi Park to enjoy lunch with other regulars and catch up over a meal.

Several days into the shelter in place order, she and dozens of other seniors now only briefly emerge from their cars to grab lunch to go, carefully keeping their distance from gloved volunteers.

It’s the only time Schulte can catch a glimpse of her friends, exchanging a wave or smile as she collects her food before returning home again, until the next day’s pickup.

In Petaluma, where 19% of the population is 60 or older, community groups, city services and nonprofits are scrambling to meet growing needs as the coronavirus and self-isolation continues to upend daily life. As these support systems work to adapt, seniors themselves are contending with abrupt changes, severed social lifelines and restricted independence.

Senior Café shuttered

As Petaluma’s seniors heed warnings from public health officials to limit venturing outside their homes, more are requesting help to secure things like groceries, medications and meals.

Anne Grossman, 73, has been eating lunch at the Senior Café for four years, initially drawn to the promise of balanced meals that gave her an excuse to cook less. But it soon became a social anchor for her, as it is for numerous others, who struggle to remain connected as they age.

“I had some groups I would sit with and became friendly with,” Grossman said of her weekly sit-down lunches. “But now I’m missing all my friends, I can’t see anybody except when I come pick up my lunch. We have to just stay in our houses.”

Seniors have been on lockdown since Mar. 15 when Gov. Gavin Newsom told all senior citizens to stay in their homes to stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Petaluma’s Senior Café, operated by Petaluma People’s Services, has had to adjust nearly every element of their operation. The nonprofit’s executive director Elece Hempel says the café’s kitchen has rapidly increased its output to meet demand, currently feeding 350 seniors a day, just under a two-fold increase from November 2019. That includes both the lunchtime service Grossman and Schulte frequent and the Meals on Wheels program that delivers to those in need.

This increased public health vigilance has also dramatically changed Meals on Wheels, limiting contact between volunteers and clients.

Orienne Bennett has been driving the same route across town every Monday for five years, developing friendships after months of weekly visits.

“A lot of times, I’m the only person they see all day,” Bennett said. “I try not to chat for too long now or go into people’s homes, now I’m just handing the meals off at the door.”

It’s an abrupt transition for many of her clients, who are predominantly seniors with serious medical conditions that prevent them from leaving the house, isolated long before the coronavirus hit. Bennett says she’s noticed her clients are becoming more wary, turning what used to be a chance to socialize into an anxiety-ridden interaction.

Hempel said Meals on Wheels is looking to add two more routes to include a growing number of seniors signing up for the service. They’re also working to fill in vacancies, as many volunteers themselves are seniors.


Senior Cafe lunches for pickup, 707-765-8488. Must call a day in advance, and contributions are welcomed but not required.

To sign up for Meals on Wheels or You Are Not Alone phone calls from volunteers, 707-765-8488.

To volunteer to call seniors with You Are Not Alone, email

“We’ve had an influx in demand for everything, plus I’ve lost about four drivers due to health concerns,” said the program’s coordinator Craig Mason. “There’s a lot of adult children pleading with their parents to stay home and not volunteer as well, which is understandable, but also challenging.”

Kathy Cherrstrom, 67, is one of those volunteers still lending a hand at the Senior Café despite falling into the ‘at-risk’ category.

“As long as I don’t get sick, I’m just going to keep on keeping on,” she said.

Limiting visitors

Families are also adjusting to shelter in place orders. In-person visits to elderly relatives are replaced by phone calls and video chats. Nursing homes and other care facilities are closed off to most outside visitors.

MuirWoods Memory Care in Petaluma is finding new ways of offering their residents methods to connect with family members, facilitating FaceTime visits and phone calls.

“We are typically such communal place,” said Constance Sablan of parent company MBK “But now it’s something we’re being very careful about, to not have groups of 10 or greater anywhere.”

Retired educator and Petaluma resident Linda Frost is finding the ban on visiting care homes, although essential to protect public health, difficult to maneuver.

Her husband of 54 years, Fred Frost, moved to a memory care home in Sonoma last summer due to severe Alzheimer’s. It’s been a big transition for them both, made a bit easier by Linda Frost’s in-person visits every other day since he moved in July. But those have ended, as have other regular visits from friends and family.

“My concern is: when I do go back, will he even recognize me?” Linda Frost said. “I call every other day and they tell me how he’s doing. Just the other day I did FaceTime with him, but he doesn’t really understand how to use the phone anymore and I could tell he was confused.”

Similar measures limiting outside contact are in place at more than a dozen of PEP Housing’s senior affordable housing locations in Petaluma. Executive Director Mary Stompe said in an email that the organization is teaming up with St. Joseph Health to provide services to residents that are home-bound, and staff conducts regular phone check-ins with residents to reduce further social isolation.

Volunteer effort

As needs continue to surface among the senior population, many community members are offering to help out their vulnerable neighbors. Social media posts abound with offers to do grocery shopping, deliver meals and provide other types of neighbor-to-neighbor outreach.

However, Hempel is cautioning against this approach, instead encouraging people to work through established organizations in order to ensure transparency and protection for seniors.

“Everyone wants to help and it is so admirable,” Hempel said. “But when there’s an exchange of money, things can get sideways really fast.”

Older adults are already at risk for scams and abuse, and AARP is calling attention to growing reports of coronavirus-related schemes across the country. Hempel said it’s fine to help out a relative, neighbor or friend without working through an organization. For everyone else, it’s best to volunteer with an organization.

One such program recently launched by Petaluma People Services Center is “You Are Not Alone,” connecting seniors with volunteers for regular phone chats. About 250 seniors are currently participating, likely to grow as outreach on the new program builds.

It’s just one of the ways community members and organizations are stepping up to provide seniors with new avenues to feel connected, seen and cared for as the coronavirus pandemic continues and shelter in place orders drag on.

“No one at any age wants to feel alone, but especially when people are older they can feel like they’re forgotten or overlooked,” said Petaluma’s senior programs coordinator Sandra Kraus. “I think staying in touch with our seniors to make sure they’re not facing isolation is going to be a top priority from here on out.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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