Shireen McSpadden
Executive Director, San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging Services
Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Section: COVID-19 Resources

Recently, n4a began interviewing AAA directors from the hardest-hit areas of the country to learn how they prepared for and are addressing COVID-19 outbreaks in their communities.
Read our interview with Shireen McSpadden, Executive Director of the San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging Services and n4a Board Member. Shireen and her team have been operating under a shelter-in-place order since March 16. Shireen’s perspective is unique as she is both a AAA director and president of the California Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

Because we know your time is valuable, we have made our interview with Shireen available in two ways: Listen to a recording of the interview OR read the following short summary if you have less time to spare. 
Where do things stand in your state?
California is still experiencing a growth in the number of COVID-19 cases, with some counties experiencing more deaths than others. In response to the situation—and in anticipation of future needs—Shireen and other AAAs in the state are both ramping up services while also assessing what services are needed during this challenging time.
As director of California’s state association of AAAs, Shireen has a bird’s-eye view of the steps her agency is taking, as well as actions being taken by other AAAs in California to address COVID-19 in their communities. Shireen says that the state’s AAAs have been in communication with the state director on aging, social services department and others as they map out the following: ensuring older adults have access to food, what Information and Referral/Assistance looks like, and how the state’s AAAs are collectively addressing social isolation given the current shelter-in-place directive.
What advice do you have for your AAA peers in other states?
  • Prepare—and then prepare again. One thing Shireen stresses is that, despite the fact that she and her team had known about the risks of COVID-19 and had been reading about it for some time, there is nothing like seeing the impact on your community.
  • Think ahead. Shireen says that she and her team took steps to assess the capacity of programs that may be affected. Nutrition programs and Information and Referral/Assistance are just two of the programs that will see increased demand right away. Shireen recommends that AAA directors take a look at these programs—and any others—to determine what may need to change in order to handle expanding community need.

    Before the statewide shelter-in-place order, San Francisco issued a stay-at-home order for older adults, which caused concerns for older adults, many of whom were worried about how they would access meals, in addition medications and health-related in-home services. 

What is the role of AAAs in responding to this crisis at the community level?
Shireen says this crisis has crystalized the fact that AAAs have a lens into the needs of older adults in the community. Whether it be during discussions at the local or state levels, it is clear that AAAs are experts in identifying and responding to the needs of older adults in the community. The expertise that AAAs have is essential, particularly when working with emergency response entities.
What has been the most helpful action, resource or advice for your agency or state network of AAAs as you’ve worked to navigate this public health emergency?
Locally, Shireen has found that her agency is fortunate to be embedded in the emergency operations center and, as a result, has close relationships with the Emergency Operations and the Department of Public Health. This also means that her agency is at the table during important conversations about how to ensure San Francisco’s residents, including older adults, get access to food and shelter.
Shireen also notes that the State Director has brought together AAAs, Department of Social Services and Health Services, which has helped increase communications and reduce the likelihood of duplication of efforts.
What impact has the Public Health Order issued by the City of San Francisco on March 16 for all residents to shelter in place had on your agency’s programs and services?
As a result of the shelter-in-place order, almost all agency staff now telework. Shireen and her staff had to determine which of their services are essential and which services are non-essential. This required Shireen and her team to review each of the agency’s programs and services to determine which fell into which category. In addition to nutrition services, Shireen’s team decided that case management and legal services programs should be considered essential as many older residents could face eviction. In addition, senior centers, while closed for all congregate activities, are part of the solution as they serve as a distribution point for meals.
Any other words of advice for your peers?
Very quickly and early on, Shireen’s staff saw an increase in the number of older adults reporting suicidal thoughts. This led Shireen and her team to use this crisis as a way of looking to engage with older adults in a new way. Shireen’s agency already has in place a program called SF Connected, which provides free computer tutoring to older adults and people with disabilities. Shireen and her team are now looking at ways of moving some of their other programs online, including dance lessons and its community choir program—both of which have gone online. Phone reassurance and wellness checks have also become part of what Shireen’s team now do to reduce social isolation among older adults during this crisis—and after.