Senior Nutrition: Outstanding ROI for the Wise Member of Congress
A few months ago, I met a delightful couple named Bill and Sonia who recently celebrated more than 50 years of marriage.
Sonia at 84 is a beautiful woman with a “dancer’s body” that she honed as a fabled Radio City Music Hall Rockette in her youth. 91-year-old Bill still has a robust physique earned from decades as a general contractor.
But outward appearances can be deceiving. Bill and Sonia had been homeless for three months the day I met them.
They hadn’t had a real meal in two weeks, surviving on crackers and candy bars while sleeping in their car, which Bill moved frequently to avoid being rousted by the police.
A Senior Community Centers’ social worker discovered them earlier that morning while participating in a count of homeless in downtown San Diego. A fire had destroyed their apartment, leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their back and a car.
The lack of proper food had worsened Sonia’s dementia, leaving her confused and very weak. Our kitchen immediately prepared two hot meals with extra portions that were devoured with an intensity magnified by starvation. Bill, tears streaming down his face, hugged me and said, “I’m supposed to take care of Sonia, and I couldn’t even feed her. Thank you.”
A booming business for social services
I truly wish that Bill and Sonia’s story was rare, but it is not. Senior Community Centers’ homeless program, which includes 35 units of transitional housing, is doing—unfortunately—a booming business.
More than half the residents at our 200-unit Potiker Family Senior Residence, which has extensive supportive housing services, were homeless prior to moving in. The vast majority are good people who have experienced the worst life can offer. They did things right—worked hard, raised families, saved for retirement—and then life intervened, leaving them in poverty.
The lack of adequate income for our senior population is a real and growing issue. In California, 1.76 million seniors (almost half) fall below the Elder Index, which measures what it takes to have basic needs—housing, food, health care, and transportation—met.
Nationally, according to Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) which helped develop the Elder Index, the level of income adequacy ($20,326 for an individual) is twice that of the Federal Poverty Level ($10,830).
These numbers explain why folks like Bill and Sonia are failing. Working hard all your life and then not being able to afford a place to live or to properly feed yourself takes a human and economic toll. Frankly, that cost is too high and, as a nation, we must do better.
First and foremost, we owe this generation a debt of gratitude that can never adequately be repaid—they fought wars and built this country.
Secondly, seniors falling through the cracks invariably end up in emergency rooms, hospitals, and long-term care institutions—at a premium cost often paid by taxpayers.
Nutrition leads to health and independence
The reality is that much of this can be prevented through inexpensive support services like senior meals. There is little debate about the link between proper nutrition and overall health. Better health allows seniors to remain independent longer. For seniors without personal resources, independence means that the tremendous financial burden of institutionalization is not transferred to their families or taxpayers.
This is why the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Service Providers (NANASP) is aggressively working to increase funding for senior nutrition programs through the congressional appropriations process for the Older Americans Act (OAA).
This network of senior centers and home-delivered meal providers serve more than 236 million meals annually. The impact of these meals is healthier seniors who are able to remain independent in their own homes at considerable cost savings to themselves and the community.
Cuts are penny wise and pound foolish
While I appreciate the passion of our elected leaders to reduce the nation’s deficit, cutting senior nutrition—or eliminating it altogether as suggested by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)—is penny wise and pound foolish.
The return-on-investment (ROI) of spending a little now on meals compared to tens of thousands dollars later for hospitalization and skilled nursing facilities through Medicare/Medicaid should be a “no-brainer.” It seems that some members of Congress have morphed into a “no-thinking” zone on the topic.
Draconian cuts to senior meals will mean significantly more unhealthy seniors who are no longer able to live independently. I say again, invest a little now to save a lot later.
By the way, Bill and Sonia are doing well. They moved into one of Senior Community Centers’ permanent supportive housing units. They eat an OAA-supported breakfast and lunch every day in the dining room. Both have renewed energy and gained needed weight. Sonia is on medication for her dementia, and both participate in activities.
With a small investment of resources and compassion from caring people, life can have a “big finish” for good people—just like a Rockette show at Radio City Music Hall.
Paul Downey is president of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP) and president/CEO of the Senior Community Centers of San Diego.