By Jann Wiswall

Hunger among senior citizens in the U.S. is a significant problem. A report prepared for the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger concluded that the number of American seniors threatened by hunger increased by 88 percent between 2001 and 2011. Today, nearly one in six American seniors — or some 8.8 million individuals — is threatened by hunger.

For its part, the Cattaraugus County Department of Aging’s Senior Wellness and Nutrition (SWAN) program is working in many ways to ensure that area seniors have the nutrition and support they need. Its range of services include nutrition education and counseling, home delivered meals, congregate meals and health promotion.

The best known of these programs is Meals on Wheels. In 2013, the Cattaraugus County program delivered 117,773 meals to nearly 900 area seniors in their homes. Each and every one of those meals was prepared in the agency’s main kitchen in Machias, and each and every one was delivered by a volunteer or agency staff member.

“We serve on average about 550 meals each day in the county,” said Department of Aging Director Cathy Mackay, “and we couldn’t do it without our dedicated volunteers.”

Individuals age 60 or older are eligible to receive home delivered meals if they have been incapacitated due to an injury, illness or other reason and are unable to prepare, shop for or obtain meals, even if the need is just temporary. Income is not a criterion.

When accepted, recipients receive a noon-time meal daily from Monday through Friday. A voluntary contribution of $3.25 per meal is suggested, but no one is denied meals if they are unable or unwilling to contribute.

Caseworkers are assigned to each applicant to do a comprehensive assessment that determines eligibility. Following the assessments, Mackay said many caseworkers discover other issues that can be addressed.

“Meals on Wheels often is a gateway to other services,” she said. “We might find that there’s a need for help with heating bills, for example, or that the client needs weekend meals or short-term home care. We can arrange to assign a caseworker who will make a variety of services available, or who can help the individual think about what they might need in the future.”

Of course, the success of Meals on Wheels depends to a tremendous degree on the volunteers who contribute their time to deliver 5–10 meals one or more times a week. It only takes about an hour (10:45–11:45 a.m.) to complete a route, and that hour can be the most rewarding one of your week.

Most volunteers establish relationships with their seniors. Some stop in and visit at other times of the week (entirely by choice). And most understand that volunteering for Meals on Wheels isn’t just about the meal.

As Mackay explained, “For many of our clients, the volunteer is the only person they see all day. That face-to-face time, though brief, is very reassuring for most homebound seniors, and it’s reassuring for family members to know that there has been a visual check of their loved one.”

You Can Help

There are many ways to support Meals on Wheels. The Department of Aging recently established the Meals on Wheels of Cattaraugus County/Friends of Aging Fund through the Cattaraugus Region Community Foundation. This nonprofit entity enables private individuals and businesses to make contributions to ensure the program can continue to serve the community regardless of government funding reductions.

During March, the SWAN program will be participating in the annual Mardi Gras parade in Ellicottville on Saturday, March 8, to raise awareness about senior hunger. Then, the Meals on Wheels Association of America is sponsoring Community Champions Week (formerly Mayors for Meals) across the country and Canada to increase awareness, recruit new volunteers and raise funds. Mayors, town supervisors and other municipal leaders in Cattaraugus County will be invited to deliver meals throughout the region on Wednesday, March 19.

And, as always, more volunteers are needed. If you are interested in being a part of this important and fulfilling project, please contact Lisa Swaciak, home delivered meals coordinator at the Department of Aging, at (716) 373-8032.