Service coordinators have played a vital role supporting elderly residents and others living in affordable housing during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

The study by the American Association of Service Coordinators (AASC), in partnership with Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), found that these workers took on new tasks to ensure residents’ well-being during the health crisis.

“Their role was critical to helping residents understand new safety guidelines, securing food and essential supplies, and helping them cope with isolation and loneliness,” says AASC president and CEO Janice Monks. “AASC members acted as liaisons within their communities to ensure the delivery of food, medicine, supplies, and masks to protect the health and safety of vulnerable populations amid major disruptions to services and supports.”

Service coordinators reallocated their time and adjusted their work in several ways:

  • The majority of respondents (85%) spent more time responding to public health recommendations;
  • For increased safety, 77% spent more time on facilities management activities such as cleaning common areas and rearranging indoor spaces;
  • Nearly three-quarters (74%) of service coordinators noticed an increased prevalence in the signs of resident loneliness or anxiety during the pandemic. In response, service coordinators increased referrals to professional mental health supports as well as other supportive organizations, instituted wellness checks, relied on peer supports, established games and other community-building activities, and distributed supplies and resources such as newsletters and flyers;
  • Seven out of 10 (73%) service coordinators spent more time helping residents with the purchase or delivery of food, 46% were more involved in the purchase or delivery of medications or medical supplies, and 64% were more attentive to the purchase or delivery of household goods such as cleaning supplies and paper products; and
  • Half of service coordinators spent more time supporting virtual medical care, 38% of them spent more time helping residents navigate benefits, and 35% spent more time on documentation tasks.

A total of 1,175 service coordinators working in multifamily properties responded to the survey between June 23 and July 17. They worked for publicly subsidized properties that spanned 47 states as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

More than half of the respondents considered themselves at high risk of COVID-19 due to age or comorbidity, and another 55% said they are in personal contact with a person of high risk such as a partner or child. Also, 35% described themselves as a member of a minority racial or ethnic group, which has also correlated with higher risk from the virus, according to AASC.

Service coordinators’ resident populations were in general at high risk of infection and serious illness from COVID-19. Respondents estimated that three-quarters of residents they served were at least 62 years old, and also that 36% of residents were people of color. Data collected during the pandemic has shown higher rates of serious illness and mortality among both those of older age and people of color.

At the time of the survey, about a third of respondents were aware of at least one resident on a property they served who had tested positive for COVID-19. Rates were highest among service coordinators working in public housing properties and lowest among residents funded by the federal Section 202 program.

In addition, the service coordinators estimated that 40% of residents of their properties did not have the food, medicine, or household supplies they would need to isolate for a week.

Service coordinators also reported that most residents did not have reliable access to the internet. On average, service coordinators estimated that 38% of residents had both internet service and an internet-capable device such as a computer or tablet.

“The pandemic has highlighted the deep connections between health and housing. For those in publicly subsidized housing, service coordinators have played a vital role in connecting older adults to food and health care and addressing mental health needs,” says Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at the JCHS. “Not only that, but they’ve done so amid the challenges of social distancing and a deep digital divide. Indeed, their work helped older adult residents who don’t have access to technology cope with the many challenges that social distancing presents.”

The report, “For Older Adults in Publicly Funded Housing During the Pandemic, Service Coordinators Help Build Resilience,” is available here.