Aging Atlantans are waiting a year or more to receive Meals on Wheels services, as waiting lists grow to the point that some people die without receiving their first meal.
County agencies and nonprofits that deliver meals face a double-shot of trouble: generally flat or decreased funding at a time of large increases in people older than 60, the age at which people become eligible for Meals on Wheels.
Some applicants have 200 people ahead of them on a waiting list. Many are home-bound and cannot fix healthy meals for themselves. For many, the daily hot meal is a great help; for others, it’s a necessity.
“How are you supposed to live?” said Harold Webster, 65, who joined the Atlanta waiting list shortly after he suffered a stroke in December. “It’s hard for me to keep my balance when I try to cook my own food.”
Webster is among thousands of people across the state who want Meals on Wheels but can’t get them. Waiting lists in metro Atlanta are in the hundreds, but that’s deceptive because some counties have simply frozen their lists and told seniors they can’t be helped.
The arithmetic is harsh. Since 2010, the number of people living in metro Atlanta age 60 and older has increased more than 20 percent, to about 659,000 people. During the same time, the number of people receiving Meals on Wheels in the metro area has declined 23 percent, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. The ARC channels federal and state dollars to the county and nonprofit agencies that run most of the local meals programs.
“Nobody wants to take food out of anybody’s mouth,” said Maureen Kelly of the ARC’s aging services division. But the dollars simply haven’t kept up with the people, she said.
The significant growth in seniors here shows up in the ARC’s phone logs: as Baby Boomers age and more retirees settle in metro Atlanta, the ARC may receive a few hundred calls a day from seniors needing some kind of help.
Meanwhile, budget cuts slice into the programs.
Clayton County saw a decrease of $35,063 in federal and state money for Meals on Wheels between 2010 and 2013. As county funding remained steady, the total budget for Meals on Wheels saw a 16 percent drop in that period.
Clayton County has frozen its wait list at 30, meaning it is not accepting new people.Had the county continued to add people, officials say, the list would be over 200.
‘What a sorry state of affairs’
Sometimes, workers call someone on the list to tell them they will receive service only to hear heartbreaking news: they’ve passed away.
Last summer, Tim Hutcherson called to put his aunt and uncle on the Hart County program in northeast Georgia. They were both in their eighties — he had a bad back and she had dementia. Hutcherson lives more than 300 miles away in Alabama. Providing each of them a hot meal a day, he said, would have been a blessing.
He said he was told 46 people were ahead of them on the list. “I thought 46 people are going to have to die before they would ever be taken care of,” he said.
About a month later, his uncle, Ted Hall, developed a blockage in his intestine, brought on, Hutcherson believes, by the inadequate meals he was eating.
In November, five months after signing up for the meals program, the elderly couple were involved in a car accident that killed his aunt Effie and put his uncle in a nursing home.
“We never heard from Meals on Wheels,” Hutcherson said. “What a sorry state of affairs.”
‘It’s going in the wrong direction’
A person doesn’t have to be poor to qualify for the meals. They must be age 60 or older with some impairment that hampers them from leaving home. And not everyone goes to the back of the line. A person in dire need, with no family support, may receive priority. The meals are free, though each recipient is asked to make a donation; those willing to pay the full cost improve their chances of receiving service.
Across metro Atlanta, the combined ARC wait list grew from 490 last summer to 700 today. But many people, once they hear of the long wait, don’t even bother to sign up.
Cobb County has a list of 37 people waiting for daily hot meals, but the program offers those in dire need some frozen meals delivered every two weeks, said Jessica Gill, executive director of Cobb County Senior Services.
Senior Services North Fulton, the nonprofit that serves that area, is trying to supplement government funding with donations from foundations and individuals. Still, the group served 20,000 fewer meals last year than in 2009, a 40 percent drop, despite an increasing need in the community.
“It’s going in the wrong direction,” said executive director Carrie Bellware.
‘A lot of programs are reeling’
Atlanta has some of the greatest need, but is also one of Georgia’s biggest success stories when it comes to Meals on Wheels. The Atlanta program has strengthened its budget by increasingly turning to private foundations and other fundraisers, including a black-tie gala once a year. The group expects to deliver about 50 percent more meals this year (a total of 125,000) than in 2010.
Still, its waiting list stands at 220 people.
Challenges stretch across the state, said Sarah McKinney, board president of the Meals on Wheels Association of Georgia. Most programs have wait lists up to a year, and many are trimming staff positions, cutting their days of service and reducing the amount they contribute to employee health plans and retirement funds.
In the Savannah area, a combination of sharp budget cuts and high poverty has created a county wait list 600 people long.
Meals on Wheels often gets caught up in the rancorous politics surrounding the government funding of social services — an unpopular prospect in some circles — and that hurts the program. But Jamie Cramer, manager of Gwinnett Senior Services, believes these meals — which cost her program about $8 a delivery — represent an inexpensive way to help keep seniors in their homes. Many otherwise would land in a nursing home, where a large percentage of costs are underwritten by taxpayers through Medicaid, she said.
Nationally, the Obama administration’s latest budget proposal offers generally flat funding for the program.
“A lot of programs are reeling, trying to fill in these gaps,” said Jenny Bertolette, a spokeswoman for the national Meals on Wheels association.
‘I was hoping somebody could help’
That offers little solace to Sephree Fulton, a retired assembly line worker. At 82, she has difficulty maneuvering around her kitchen. She strains to lift pots and can’t stand too long cooking at the stove.
Meals on Wheels would not only provide her with a good meal, it would reduce her food expenses. Right now she’s collecting Social Security and about $15 a month in food stamps.
When she recently signed up for the Atlanta program, she was told the wait could be months.
“I’m disappointed because I was hoping somebody could help me,” Fulton said.
Still, hope is better than nothing.
“It’s a long wait, but I’ll take a chance,” she said.
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TRAFFIC JAM FOR MEALS ON WHEELS
Meals on Wheels has spent years delivering hot meals, most of them free, to seniors. Using mostly volunteer drivers, the program provides a meal a day presented by a friendly face. That driver may be the only person a senior sees all day, and the value of that face-to-face interaction — momentary as it is — cannot be overstated. Hardly a week goes by, program officials say, without some driver coming upon an elderly person who has fallen or needs help.
Federal and state governments send funds for the program to the Atlanta Regional Commission, which then divides it up among the county and nonprofit agencies that run the Meals on Wheels programs. The federal money coming in has been relatively flat since 2009, totaling about $1.6 million a year, the ARC said.
State funding, a far smaller portion, has more than doubled to $151,383, and many individual counties contribute funding as well.
People older than 60 in metro Atlanta have increased by about 20 percent since 2010, to about 659,000. But the number of people receiving Meals on Wheels has declined by 23 percent, to 6,018, the ARC said.