Meal programs help keep Whatcom seniors healthy, at home

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 6, 2014 

What does it mean to be food insecure? For a senior it may mean having to choose between paying for food or medication or utilities. It may mean filling up on empty sources of calories such as instant noodles or day-old pastries. Although a diet adequate in both calories and key nutrients such as vitamins and minerals is important at any age for maintaining health, older adults are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of food insecurity and malnutrition. It is estimated that 50 percent of all diseases impacting American seniors are directly connected to lack of adequate nutrition. Over time, poor nutritional intake can leave seniors susceptible to illness, decrease their ability to manage chronic diseases such as diabetes and impair their ability to recover from a surgery or illness. Malnutrition in older adults is also associated with significant functional impairments as well as psychosocial effects including depression, anxiety and self neglect.

In their report, the State of Senior Hunger in America 2011, professors James Ziliak and Craig Gunderson estimate that nearly 1 in 6 seniors in America age 60 and over faces the threat of hunger, a 42 percent increase since the start of the Great Recession in 2007. Their report, based on data from the U.S. Current Population Survey, also noted that seniors most likely to be food insecure included younger seniors (ages 60-69), those with lower incomes and those who are racial or ethnic minorities. Other factors that increase a senior's risk of hunger and malnutrition include disability, inability to cook, poor access to groceries and depression. Services including those provided by the senior nutrition programs, such as Meals on Wheels and Senior Community Meals, and food banks help ensure local seniors receive the nutrition they need to remain healthy and independent.

Tom is a 92-year-old World War II vet with severe arthritis who began receiving home-delivered Meals on Wheels at his Bellingham mobile home in 2003 while recovering from a stroke. The effects of the stroke combined with his arthritis left him unable to shop for or to prepare nutritious meals on his own. Tom continued to receive Meals on Wheels for 10 years during which time volunteer drivers became his surrogate family and were often the first people to recognize concerning changes in his appearance or behavior. Through the combination of Meals on Wheels, other support services and friends, Tom remained in his home until last spring when he moved to a long-term skilled nursing facility due to his need for increased care.

For many like Tom, the provision of one or two nutritionally balanced meals per day can significantly improve their ability to remain living independently at home. According to a 2011 study, 92 percent of Meals on Wheels participants reported that the program allows them to continue to live in their own home. A Brown University Study published in late 2012 found that states that invest in home-delivered meal programs such as Meals on Wheels have proportionally fewer low-care residents in nursing homes.

Not every Meals on Wheels participant receives meals long term. Many use the service a short time while recovering from an illness or surgery. Meals on Wheels are available on a donation-only basis to adults age 60 and over who are homebound and unable to shop for and/or prepare nutritious food safely on their own. The meals are also available to spouses and unpaid caregivers. All Whatcom Meals on Wheels participants receive an initial home assessment and follow up by our registered dietitian who also refers them to additional community services as appropriate. Eighty percent of Whatcom Meals on Wheels participants report low- to extremely low-income levels by HUD standards and more than 75 percent are determined to be at high nutritional risk upon initial in-home assessment.

The good news is that you can help make sure local seniors receive the nutrition they need to stay healthy and independent!

Please join the Senior Nutrition Program in our 2nd annual March for Meals campaign to end senior hunger. Activities are planned throughout the month, beginning with a Circus Guild performance and Dessert Night this Friday, March 7, at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center and a Magic Ice Cream Social at the Ferndale Senior Center on Saturday, March 8. The month will culminate with a free half-day Nutrition and Aging Symposium at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center on March 26. For more information, go to wccoa.org.

The Senior Nutrition Program is a program of the Whatcom Council on Aging, a non-profit agency. The program is funded through about 38 percent federal grants and 27 percent participant donations. We rely on community partners, private donations and other grants to meet the balance of our expenses.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Meyers is director of the Whatcom/San Juan Senior Nutrition Program.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The second annual March for Meals campaign to raise money and awareness for Meals on Wheels, the Community Lunch Program, and issues surrounding senior hunger includes events throughout the month. They include:

Circus and dessert night, 7 to 9 p.m., March 7, Bellingham Senior Activity Center, 315 Halleck St.;

Frozen yogurt fundraiser at Menchie's, March 7-9, 1070 Lakeway Drive and 1301 W. Bakerview Road, suite 106;

Fundraiser at Applebee's, March 14, 1069 E. Sunset Drive;

Lunch with Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., March 14, Bellingham Senior Activity Center;

March 15: St. Patrick's Day breakfast before Bellingham's St. Patrick's Day parade, March 15, Bellingham Senior Activity Center;

Nutrition and aging symposium, 1:30 to 5 p.m. March 26, Bellingham Senior Activity Center.

Events outside of Bellingham include:

Magic ice cream social, 2 to 4 p.m., March 8, Ferndale Senior Center, 1999 Cherry St.;

St. Patrick's community dinner, 5 p.m., March 12, Blaine Senior Center, 763 G St.;

Community dinner, 5:45 p.m., March 19, Sumas Senior Center, 451 W. Second St.;

Community lunch with music by Claudette Dykstra, noon to 1 p.m., March 28, Everson Senior Center, 111 W. Main St.

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