Senior News: Meal program needs support

Posted: Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Juneau's senior meal program is a critical piece in the continuum of care that helps older citizens remain healthy and independent. One only needs to be age 60 or older to participate, although the program makes extra efforts to reach seniors with the greatest economic and social need. "For many seniors it is the only nutritious meal they get each day," explains Lorilyn Swanson, chairwoman of the Juneau Commission on Aging. Each meal consists of the entrée/main dish, a fruit or vegetable (usually a salad), another vegetable, a bread source, milk and a dessert.

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"The meal program gets people out of their homes-they need to be with other people," she adds. In Juneau, there are three senior meal locations where seniors can enjoy the meals and the company of others. The hot, nutritious meals are served at noon five days a week, Monday through Friday, at the Juneau Senior Center. They are also available Tuesday and Thursday at the Douglas Senior Center and Wednesday and Friday at the Valley Senior Center. The Douglas and Valley sites are run by volunteers. All meals are prepared by the kitchen staff at the Juneau Senior Center and are then transported to the volunteer meal sites by the Care-A-Van service.

This program has become a top concern of the Juneau Commission on Aging, due to the financial challenges it is facing. The new fiscal year has just begun and Juneau's senior meal program budget is looking at a $34,000 shortage of funds. While the funding has remained relatively stable, the costs of doing business have steadily increased over the years. Although the cost of food and utilities has gone up, personnel costs are at the root of the problem. Increases in workers compensation have skyrocketed. "We've cut back staff hours to the bare bones and are seriously considering reducing the program to four days a week to make ends meet," explains Larry Bussone, Nutrition Coordinator for Southeast Senior Services. "This will make it more difficult to retain our great staff members who already don't make enough money."

With a budget of $294,000 Juneau's senior meal program is funded through a combination of sources, including federal Older Americans Act funds (Title III) channeled through the Alaska Division of Senior and Disability Services, Medicaid Waiver funds, donations from seniors who enjoy the meals, fundraising, and a generous in-kind contribution of the facility by the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. As dictated by the Older Americans Act, seniors are encouraged to make a free-will donation toward the cost of the meal but cannot be required to pay. Seniors donate about $28,000 a year. In fiscal year 2006, community support and fund raisers brought in $22,000 to the program, but it just wasn't enough - the program ended the year with a $16,000 deficit.

In addition to the meals and socialization offered through this program at the senior centers, Juneau's Meals On Wheels for homebound seniors are a part of the same program. The meals are delivered by a dedicated corps of volunteers.

The Juneau Commission on Aging is appealing to the people of Juneau to help find some solutions and make it possible for the program to continue providing meals five days a week. "I hope that the Juneau community will come to its aid," observes Lorilyn Swanson. To find out more, or to offer assistance, individuals, community organizations and businesses are encouraged to contact Larry Bussone at 463-6153.

• Marianne Mills is the program director of Southeast Senior Services, which offers home and community-based services for older Alaskans throughout the region.

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