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Meals on Wheels lifeline strained

Oak Harbor resident Rodd Beardsley receives a meal from Meals on Wheels volunteer Diana Spear.  - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor resident Rodd Beardsley receives a meal from Meals on Wheels volunteer Diana Spear.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

Some are elderly war veterans who can no longer cook for themselves. Others are widows who can’t afford food. Some are living in shocking poverty, while others are trying to hold onto what they have in the face of overwhelming health care bills.

Above all, the senior citizens and disabled people on Whidbey Island who receive food through the Meals on Wheels program are largely invisible to the public, even as Island County officials and citizens debate funding for this and other services for seniors.

Volunteers like Diana Spear, and her 9-year-old grandson Cauy Lasko, take the time to visit with the men and women — and small dogs — when they drop off meals on an Oak Harbor route that winds through a number of mobile home parks. For many elderly residents, the Meals on Wheels volunteers are the only contact they might have with other people all week. The food that’s delivered may be the only meal they eat that day.

It is, for all intents and purposes, a lifeline.

“For the most part, they are happy to see us. I just love ‘em.

They’re all so special to us,” Spear said. She explained that she and her husband started volunteering five years ago, cognizant that they may need help someday too.

“It’s good for us oldtimers,” Rodd Beardsley, a frail but friendly widower, said of Meals on Wheels. He truly enjoys the food, which is cooked from scratch under the supervision of a nutrition specialist.

County commissioners have resisted calls to completely cut funding to senior services during round after round of budget cutting, although they have halved the county’s contribution over the last couple of years. At least one commissioner has suggested that completely cutting funding would leave a lot of senior citizens without food.

On the other side, the county sheriff, the prosecutor and many citizens have argued that county government shouldn’t give scarce resources to non-profit organizations for services that aren’t mandated by law. They believe the organizations can find money elsewhere, while county offices are wholly dependent on limited tax dollars.

The truth may be fuzzier than either view.

Senior services in the county is a complicated picture with three organizations — Senior Services of Island County, the Oak Harbor Senior Center and the Camano Community and Senior Center — providing a variety of programs and vying for funding. Senior Services of Island County operates a senior center on South Whidbey, but also runs Meals on Wheels and other safety-net programs countywide. The money comes from a long list of sources, including state and federal grants requiring local matching funds. A complex net of elected officials and private boards set the funding priorities for the different senior service organizations.

Thrown into the mix is a bad economy, decreasing donations and a senior population that’s about to skyrocket as the Baby Boomers turn gray.

An important consideration, senior advocates say, is that the organizations save the community a lot of money over the long run. Without the services, more elderly people would end up needing enormously expensive care in hospitals or nursing homes.

“We help people stay independent in their homes for as long as possible,” Cheryn Weiser, the director of Senior Services for Island County, said.

But would any seniors actually go hungry if the county cut funding to senior services altogether? It’s hard to say. This year, 53 percent — or $70,000 — of the funding Senior Services of Island County received from the county went to the senior nutrition program. The program, which includes Meals on Wheels, costs a total of $642,000 a year. Senior Services of Island County has a $2.6-million annual budget. Some people have suggested that the group could simply move $70,000 from another part of the budget to fund nutrition programs.

But Victoria Doerper, the executive director of Northwest Regional Council, points out that much of the money senior agencies receive comes with strings attached and can’t be used to fund other priorities. The Northwest Regional Council is an association of four counties that implements state and federal programs for seniors and people who need long-term care. Much of the grant funding that Senior Services of Island County receives comes through the council.

Without any contribution from the county, Doerper said it’s possible that the “number of meals available for older people would decrease” and some seniors would go hungry.

“It’s really hard to predict,” she added. “There are a lot of committed people in the community and nobody wants to see that happen.”

Yet Weiser said it’s not realistic to expect that community would “rally around” senior services and donate enough money to make up the difference if the county cuts funding altogether. She points out that donations, fees for services and profits from the thrift store already make up a large portion of the funding. Senior Services, like nonprofit organizations across the country, has seen donations decrease during the recession. Plus, she said funding from the state and federal government for the senior programs may also be cut significantly.

“The more cuts we make, the more at risk our seniors become,” she said.

The funding story is complex, even if the focus is just on county government. Before the county’s budget cutting began two years ago, the county set aside about $300,000 a year for senior services. The money was split between the Oak Harbor Senior Center, the Camano Island senior center and Senior Services of Island County. The commissioners cut the funding by about 12 percent for the 2010 budget.

Under the current draft budget for 2011, the county’s total contribution was again cut, this time by 40 percent. The contribution is currently set at $158,000.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson directed the representatives of the senior service organizations to meet and decide how to allocate the county funds. She said the money from the county should only be used for programs that provide for the health and welfare of seniors.

“We want to preserve the lifeline,” she said.

Presumably, that means the lion’s share of the funds will go to Senior Services of Island County, a nonprofit organization that runs many vital services for elderly citizens. There’s the volunteer CHORE program, which provides transportation to medical appointments, pharmacies and grocery stores, as well as some housekeeping and yard work. The nonprofit owns an apartment building that provides affordable senior housing. There’s information and assistance to help seniors and their families connect with resources.

Perhaps most important is the nutrition program. Under the Meals on Wheels program, volunteers deliver food to seniors homes. Debbie Metz, the nutrition director for Senior Services, said the service is provided only to low-income people. About 350 people receive food through the program each year.

There’s also congregate meals served at seven sites in the county, including the Oak Harbor Senior Center. It’s the same food as Meals on Wheels, but the seniors can eat without having to qualify based on income. About 1,200 people a year eat lunches at the congregate sites.

“It’s like a social club. They just love it. They talk, eat and have a good time,” said Barbara Huessmann, the meal site manager in Oak Harbor. She added that the people look out for each other and worry if someone is missing. From her experience, Huessmann believes that the program only reaches “the tip of the iceberg.”

In addition, the nutrition program provides liquid food to ailing people and vouchers for farmers markets to low-income seniors.

Metz said the cost per meal for Meals on Wheels is $8.13. Most of the cost comes from the food itself, staff, facilities and transportation. Metz, a dietitian, is the only full-time staff member. She supervises 11 part-time employees and 126 volunteers.

The big losers in the county cuts to elderly services may be the senior centers since they don’t provide as many of the “lifeline” programs that Senior Services of Island County does. Mike McIntyre, director of the Oak Harbor Senior Center, said his program has essentially nowhere left to cut.

Everyone agrees that this is a terrible time to see funding dry up for seniors. The poor economy and expensive healthcare system have put more seniors in poverty and at risk. And with the graying population, senior services should be gearing up to do more, not cut what they have. McIntrye said 47 percent of the county’s population is projected to be over 50 years old by 2025. That’s 47,000 people.

“The Baby Boomer group is gigantic,” he said. “It’s like nothing we have ever dealt with before.”

Community Events, April 2014

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