Maria hugged the robotic dog and kissed its nose.
by Jannette Jauregui
The smile on Maria’s face said it all.
The Santa Paula woman is among the more than 200,000 older adults currently living in Ventura County. Like many of her peers, Maria has been isolating at home for nearly a year now as part of an effort to remain safe and healthy as the County’s number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.
Her smile that day came from a robotic companion pet delivered to her by Ventura County Area Agency on Aging (VCAAA) social worker, Ana Lett. As Maria hugged the dog and kissed its nose it became clear that, in that moment, the fear and loneliness associated with the pandemic were no more.
“It was an honor to have been able to make this delivery happen because seeing Maria’s reaction to her pet was what I needed,” Lett said. “The joy it brought was everything.”
The comfort brought to Maria that day meant the goal of the VCAAA’s Robotic Companion Pet Program was a success. It meant that the isolation Maria has faced might be a bit more manageable.
With a person-centered focus, the VCAAA continues to work to expand existing services that address the needs of individuals navigating the twists and turns of COVID-19. The implementation of a Robotic Companion Pet Program for the Agency’s case management clients is just one of the innovative methods used to combat isolation, loneliness, and depression.
Prior to COVID-19, VCAAA social workers conducted home visits throughout Ventura County to assess the specific needs of individual clients. The visits often served as the only social interaction clients received in a day or even in a week.
When home visits became prohibited due to an increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus, the VCAAA team pivoted and began offering porch visits in which the social worker wears a mask and maintains a safe, social distance while also having the opportunity to assess and address individual needs. The porch visits serve as a lifeline for many reeling from the negative effects of isolation.
In addition to robotic companion pets and porch visits, the VCAAA offers COVID-19 Care Kits for people sheltering at home that include gloves, masks, sanitizer, soap, and other critical resources to help individuals stay safe should they need to leave their home. Other program expansions include increased access to meal and food resources as part of the Agency’s Senior Nutrition Program, and a virtual line-up of classes designed to educate people 60 and older with tips to eat healthy on a budget.
The Fall Prevention Program now offers socially distanced classes in a safe, outdoor setting with a focus on keeping participants active and engaged while also strengthening balance and mobility. The ElderHelp program continues to offer access to transportation via bus tickets, Uber, and Medi-Rides. Included in this service are rides to COVID-19 testing sites and vaccination sites (once the vaccination becomes more readily available). ElderHelp also provides services for home modifications such as grab bars.
The VCAAA’s Information and Assistance team received nearly three times the number of requests for service in 2020 than in previous years, solidifying what most already know – that the COVID-19 crisis has changed the landscape of needs and how those needs are fulfilled. But as the landscape shifts, the VCAAA’s dedication and commitment to continue person-centered service remains steadfast.
For more information on VCAAA services, please visit www.vcaaa.org or call (805) 477-7300.