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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.

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  • Thank you for this article. My feathers have sufficiently been ruffled by AHCCS in Arizona and the SNAP program. I am a 72 year old female without a permanent residence. I alternate between the homes of two friends so that I can be safe and not living out of my car. I have a place to cook my food and wash my clothes and shower and carry my basic needs in my nearly eleven year old car. AHCCS and the SNAP program have seen fit to decrease my benefits since I do not have a permanent address and this means they see my situation as not paying rent, which I do. Out of a $932 social security check, I pay thirty-three percent in lodging, thirty-three percent for phone and furniture storage and the last thirty-three percent goes to car insurance and gas. I will be reduced to $16.00 a month for nutrition assistance and I am now beginning to fight for my rights as an aging citizen of these United States. Even preparing through the years, this long-lasting and depressing economy took it's toll very quickly and I for one am standing up and fighting for change. If there is one way to eliminate the aging population, it's to keep them depressed, worried and not feed them. This has to stop and I have just begun to fight for these very basic rights of health care, food, and shelter, not only for myself but for all of us who have paid taxes throughout the years without asking for anything in return. My congresswoman and my senator will be hearing from me as well as soon as I can word my concerns in an effective manner to them. Corie AZ
  • I am 59 yrs old and my wife is 49, I am 100% disabled and my wife was fired from her job when she was injured over 2 yrs ago, I applied for SNAP and LIHEAP, Snap advised us we qualified for $16.00 a month for food for two, LIHEAP gave the Utility Co $300 on a $3000
    elec and gas bill....Seniors are discarded and left to fend for themselves because it is cheaper for us to die than get help.
    Cliston Greenview, IL
  • They are simply trying to force everyone to rely on expensive private insurance! It is all about the money. For those that already have. They will run things of the backs of the poor and powerless. Not what I, as a Veteran, served my country to protect... June Lexington, KY
  • Senator Rand Paul, and other miserly officials are the ones with DEMENTIA. Vote them and the president out of office. We have all this money to waste on other nations, financing wars, and other humane reasons, and we can not take care of our seniors, and other americans.!!! Karen
  • I will talk to the right people, right away..I'm sick to my stomach now and crying..how could their mother's and sisters be chosen to die, when so many things can bring the money thats needed...how could you kill innocent people...this is just murder under another name..you realize this, like Aushwitz, but more painful. I saw a man, on the news, who had just come over from Russia. A camera was on him, and he said, "You call this freedom"...chilling....just kill us now please; slowly just won't do...painless, quick..more money for the government (of course, without people to run)..except their wealthy relatives that they kept alive with their earned "pension" hahahahah... Laura Irvine, CA
  • I have contacted my senators and advised them that we need to to keep our senior programs funded, they are deserving of the help that they earned through work and defending our country during time of war. I have received a positive response back from my One Away plea to Senator Sherrod Brown in support of the elderly medicaid programs.
    Jane Monclova, OH