Island Senior Resources remains vital after 50 years

The nonprofit organization is showing no signs of slowing down.

It may be Island Senior Resources’ 50th year of operation, but the nonprofit organization is showing no signs of slowing down.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Island Senior Resources expanded programs and services in order to meet the growing essential needs of senior citizens. These are needs that will continue to grow as the island continues to gray.

In 2020 and 2021, volunteers provided 164,156 home-delivered meals through the Meals on Wheels program, covering 65,404 miles in the process.

A total of 17,202 contacts were made with seniors, caregivers, adults with disabilities and those who care about them through the organization’s Aging and Disability Resources program, which offers free assistance to help people identify, access and understand which services they need most.

Volunteers also made 4,061 trips driving individuals to medical appointments — many of which were located on the mainland — for a total of 293,721 miles covered.

Cheryn Weiser, the organization’s former executive director, said some innovation was required in order to respond to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. Staff associated with the Aging and Disability Resources program moved out of their offices, where they were accustomed to having face-to-face conversations, and learned impactful services could still be offered over the phone or by email. Outreach on the Island Senior Resources website increased by 47% in two years.

“Our ability to be really responsive took a lot of dedication and passion and energy and continued adaptation as we learned more,” she said.

Weiser officially retired from her role April 29. Michele Cato is the new executive director of Island Senior Resources. Another new staff member, Katheryn Howell, is serving as the director of community programs.

Cato said she has been considering what Island Senior Resources’ next 50 years will look like.

“Fifty years old means we’re seniors ourselves and entering that senior age as an organization, and what does that mean for our own aging in place?” she said.

She plans to focus on a feasibility study that will evaluate the best way for Island Senior Resources to use its real estate assets to promote a financial and programmatic future. The return of congregate meals is also on her radar — but that does not mean home-delivered meals will be scaled back. About 80% of Meals on Wheels recipients have indicated that they intend to continue receiving meal deliveries.

“That has grown so, so much during COVID,” Cato said. “We don’t see that going down.”

Within the first quarter of 2022, Meals on Wheels provided 18,216 meals.

According to Cato, the organization received a total of $615,971 of American Rescue Plan Act funding for a two-year period, largely for the Aging and Disability Resources program.

Because of ARPA funds, Howell explained, a case manager has been deployed as an extension of intake calls that Island Senior Resources responds to. The case manager meets people where they are and helps with what they need assistance with, whether it’s securing permitting for the construction of a wheelchair ramp to their front door, a card for the dump or finding a new podiatrist.

As Weiser pointed out, “What people tell you on the phone sometimes isn’t actually the reality they’re living in.”

Howell said Island Senior Resources will soon be hiring a second case manager to keep up with the demand.

But while the recent burst in funding has been helping keep some programs afloat, the nonprofit organization has had to make some difficult decisions about which underfunded programs to cut, such as an adult day care service that provided critical respite for caregivers.

“Even prior to COVID though, we had to make some tough decisions as to how best to cover the rising costs of labor, fuel and food supplies to meet the growing needs of seniors and others we serve as the Baby Boomer bubble ages and as we see more and more seniors in their 80s and 90s,” Cato said.

Contrary to what some might think, Island Senior Resources is not a branch of Island County government and is not wholly funded by the county.

Cato said the nonprofit organization’s 2022 budget anticipates 59% of revenues from federal, state and local governmental sources for contracted services such as Meals on Wheels and Medicaid case management, 28% from individual donors, 7% from project income, 4% from grants and 2% from Senior Thrift store net profits.

Another myth persists that Island Senior Resources serves only the South Whidbey population.

“We serve Island County,” Cato said. “I think a lot of people think of us as South Whidbey. We’re not. We have services and can be available to all of Island County.”

In fact, besides the Bayview location it is known for, the organization also leases space in Coupeville, Oak Harbor and on Camano Island for meal distribution and case management.

A lesser known aspect of the organization is the medical equipment lending library, which has various locations around the county. Items such as hospital beds or walkers are available at no cost for those who need them.

“All we ask is that when you’re done with it, turn it back in if you can or pass it on to somebody else,” Cato said.

A jubilee celebration is planned for Island Senior Resources on July 31.

Communications Strategist Robin Bush said some real turning points for the organization in its 50-year history include when aging and disability services were added. The ability to serve and deliver meals throughout the entire county also expanded.

At its heart, the organization has always been about helping the county’s elders.

“It was created by a dedicated group of community citizens who saw the needs of seniors,” Bush said.

Weiser has referred to Island Senior Resources as a “one-stop shop” for those seeking resources, because they don’t have to peruse multiple sources for answers.

During her 12 years as executive director, she focused on improving the sustainability of the organization to ensure its longevity and strengthening its services. In 2013, for example, as a result of a strategic planning process, it was decided that Island Senior Resources would no longer focus on senior housing and sold the CamBey Apartments in Coupeville. The funds from the sale were used to hire a development director to help build alliances with community members.

“When I came into the organization, in 2010, Meals on Wheels was funded 54% from federal and state funding,” Weiser said. “In 2019, only 27% of the costs of the Meals on Wheels program was covered by federal and state funding. That’s a huge change and it pointed us in the direction of strengthening our development capacity.”

Cato said she is grateful for the solid foundation that Weiser has laid. Moving forward, Cato is hoping Island Senior Resources can form partnerships with other community organizations.

“There’s good education, there’s good services, there’s good people,” she said of Island County. “There’s no reason that we can’t find what we need here versus believing it doesn’t exist because it hasn’t before.”