CEO of SeniorsPlus in Lewiston Discusses Efforts to Reduce Senior Isolation, Loneliness Exacerbated by COVID-19

SeniorsPlus has been using Meals on Wheels, Zoom activities to help keep seniors socially connected

Prolonged social isolation and loneliness have been found to have adverse impacts on health comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.


Click HERE to read Senator Collins’ opening statement.

Click HERE to watch Senator Collins’ opening statement.  Click HERE to download.

Click HERE to watch Senator Collins’ Q&A with Besty Sawyer-Manter.  Click HERE to download.


Washington, D.C. — With congregate meal sites closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, SeniorsPlus experienced a sharp increase in the need for home-based nutrition services.  According to Betsy Sawyer-Manter, the President and CEO of the Lewiston nonprofit, the number of meals they have delivered to seniors’ homes has risen by 46 percent since mid-March and is still climbing.


“Our kitchen went into overdrive and produced an extra three weeks of shelf stable and frozen meals for every client in case we were unable to get meals out to them,” said Ms. Sawyer-Manter.  “United Health Care came through with additional food products, but just as importantly, pet food.  We deliver the food along with the meals as we know pets are incredibly important companions for older isolated people.”


Ms. Sawyer-Manter made those comments at a Senate Aging Committee hearing chaired by U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) today that examined the growing incidence of senior isolation and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


According to a new finding from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, nearly one quarter of older adults are socially isolated, and more than 40 percent report being lonely.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, early studies have suggested that for some older adults, social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders are resulting in increased rates of social isolation and loneliness, which can have serious, even deadly, consequences for the health and well-being of our nation’s seniors.  Prolonged social isolation and loneliness have been found to have adverse impacts on health comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.


Ms. Sawyer-Manter, who was invited to testify by Senator Collins, explained how Meals on Wheels and other SeniorsPlus programs are serving clients and connecting them with friendly volunteers.  She also discussed how SeniorsPlus has been using Zoom video conferencing to continue offering services such as virtual home visits, Medicare counseling, various support groups, yoga, exercise and nutritional educational classes, and trivia.  To help overcome barriers to technology, SeniorsPlus has used some funding provided through the CARES Act to purchase tablets and hotspots for seniors, and they offer a “Zoom 101” training course to their clients and staff every week.


As the Chairman of the Aging Committee, Senator Collins has long led efforts to reduce social isolation and loneliness among seniors.  In 2017, she held the first congressional hearing on this topic.  In addition, Senator Collins authored the 2020 reauthorization of the Older Americans Act (OAA), the landmark legislation supporting seniors and their caregivers.  The OAA funds numerous programs that help to improve the wellbeing of our nation’s older adults.  In addition, Senator Collins worked to expand flexibilities in the OAA to ensure that Area Agencies on Aging like SeniorsPlus can meet the growing needs of seniors during this pandemic.


“Could you expand on how this increased flexibility has enabled your agency to better meet the growing nutrition and social connection needs of the seniors you serve?” Senator Collins asked Ms. Sawyer-Manter.


“We found that the flexibility was incredibly important to us.  We have been able to continue to serve those congregate meals through home delivered meals now,” responded Ms. Sawyer-Manter.  “[Through] the ability to reach people who were socially isolating that didn’t necessarily meet the traditional OAA restrictions… we really discovered that the need out there is so much greater than what the traditional resources were able to cover.  We’re also finding that many of them could actually meet the traditional OAA guidelines, so I think what we’re really doing is discovering the true size of the population that really needs nutrition assistance.  It’s really opened doors in ways that we would have not been able to in the past.”


Since 1972, SeniorsPlus has been serving the needs of seniors and individuals with disabilities throughout Androscoggin, Oxford, and Franklin counties.  SeniorsPlus helps people remain in their homes through nutrition, education, counseling, caregiver support, and homecare coordination programs.