Seniors hopeful safety ordinance will lead to better quality of life amid pandemic

The Jane Addams Senior Caucus pushed for the measure that will provide wellness checks during a health emergency like the coronavirus pandemic.

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Crystal McGee, 73, poses for a portrait outside her home in the West Point Plaza Apartments, 300 S. Damen Ave., on the Near West Side, Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 6, 2020.

Crystal McGee, 73, and the tenants organization in the West Point Plaza Apartments, 300 S. Damen Ave., on the Near West Side, ramped up efforts to designate floor captains to conduct daily wellness checks after learning 11 residents had COVID-19.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Crystal McGee, like others, was initially skeptical about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

But then McGee, 73, learned that at least 11 residents in the West Point Plaza on the Near West Side — the senior building that she calls home — had fallen sick with COVID-19. McGee and the tenants organization in the building ramped up their efforts to designate floor captains to conduct daily wellness checks.

“Once we announced that there were people in the building with it, then the other tenants started cooperating” with the wellness checks, McGee said.

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Now five months into the pandemic, McGee and other seniors in Chicago are reviewing the senior safety ordinance that was passed by the City Council in late July and recently went into effect. The “senior safety ordinance” tasks building owners and managers with conducting similar wellness checks that the tenants association in McGee’s building was already doing.

The goal is to establish safety protocols for senior buildings during public health emergencies, including wellness checks at least twice weekly, requiring staff to help residents with medication and food delivery, implementing a cleaning regimen and restricting access to the building.

The ordinance was introduced in April by Ald. Maria Hadden (49th). Leslie Perkins, the chief of staff for Hadden, said attorneys with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus and the Shriver Center had to work with the city to make sure the ordinance would be enforceable. For now, Perkins said seniors are encouraged to call their aldermanic office to report violations, though Hadden’s office would eventually like to also see reporting done through the city’s 311 system.

“They’ve been living in a lot of fear and anxiety these past several months so it’s nice to have something that we can point them to,” Perkins said.

Marsha Cole, 67, is a member of the Jane Addams caucus, a Chicago-based advocacy group that works on senior issues like housing, and she was among those who spent four months drafting and pushing for the ordinance.

Now Cole is among those working with Chicago officials to sign off on posters that will be placed inside buildings informing residents about the new measure. The seniors are also pushing for interpreters to be available to speak to any senior citizen during the wellness check who doesn’t speak English.

“(Building owners) are going to have to take responsibility of calling their tenants, not just collecting the rent,” Cole said.

Despite moving from Rogers Park to Evanston, Cole said she is committed to ensuring the safety measures are put in place. She would like to see similar measures be adopted in Evanston and in suburban Cook County to protect seniors living outside of Chicago.

Cole said she is in the process of forming a committee that will check the enforcement of the ordinance across the city. The measure requires buildings to maintain a record of the wellness checks and cleanings. The city could impose fines ranging from $100 to $500 for violations.

“Because we stuck together and there is power in numbers, we were able to make (the ordinance) pass, we are not going to pass it and walk away,” Cole said. “We are going to follow up.”

In Chicago, more than 14,100 residents who are 60 years and older have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data from the city’s Department of Public Health. Seniors 70 and older make up 58% of COVID-19-related deaths in Chicago, according to the most current data provided by the city.

Debra Miller, 68, lives in an Edgewater Beach building where at least one death is tied to COVID-19, according to data from the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

During the pandemic, she and her husband only received three wellness checks that she didn’t think were satisfactory and described them as curt. She is also a member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus.

“We are very hopeful that (the ordinance) will enhance the lives of seniors in the senior buildings because they will know that they are safe,” Miller said. “We are going to make sure that seniors know that this has been passed and they can go ahead and let us know as an organization when it’s not.”

McGee said the tenants organization in her building got the idea for wellness checks before the pandemic. A resident on her floor had been found dead in January, and residents believe he had been dead for about six days, McGee said.

“We were having this smell and we just didn’t know what it was,” McGee said. “It was horrible. Come to find out he had been in his apartment six days dead. Nobody had come to check on him.”

Crystal McGee, 73, shows a tag that she puts on her doorknob to indicate to building management that she does not need a wellness check at her home in the West Point Plaza Apartments, 300 S. Damen Ave., on the Near West Side, Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 6, 2020.

Crystal McGee, 73, shows a tag that she puts on her doorknob to indicate to building management that she does not need a wellness check at her home in the West Point Plaza Apartments, 300 S. Damen Ave., on the Near West Side, Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 6, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The floor captains put tags on people’s doors that would help them keep track of who has answered and who hasn’t answered their door. If no one has been able to reach the person within three days, the organization flags the unit to management, McGee said.

The group initially didn’t get a lot of participation from residents who didn’t want to open their doors or use the tags indicating they were OK. After they went to management with concerns about residents they hadn’t heard from, McGee said she learned there had been 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the building. McGee and others hadn’t known people had tested positive, but she soon spread the word to other residents.

Even though her building is considered independent living for seniors, she says seniors like her shouldn’t be ignored.

“When you are a senior you are put in a box and told to be quiet,” she said. “It’s not right for us to be ignored.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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