Seniors are often the forgotten generation. As we go about our daily lives, we forget there are many seniors who live alone and are lonely and isolated. Many of them are also hungry. As we drive through our neighborhoods on our way to work, school, church or to go shopping, we drive past homes where seniors live behind closed doors and closed blinds.
Senior hunger is a hidden national crisis that will only become more serious. In 2030, more than 20 percent of Americans are expected to be older than 65. There is an army of baby boomers who have not saved enough given how long they are going to live, marching towards retirement. It’s going to be a hungry retirement! Many have not recovered from the recession poorly timed for people nearing or already in their retirement years.
The number of seniors facing the threat of hunger is alarmingly high. More than 1 in 6 seniors in America – a total of 8.8 million — may not know when they will have their next meal or where it will come from. In 2050 that number – 8.8 million – is predicted to double.
There are many reasons for the rapid increase in life expectancy, including improved medical care and healthier life styles. Since people are living longer, we also are seeing more frail elderly. The frail elderly segment of our population is growing faster than any other category. Frail is defined as a state of decreased physical functioning and/or bad complications of aging such as poor balance that increased the risk of falls, fractures or disability.
No one grows up dreaming of becoming isolated, hungry, and alone. Sometimes it is beyond their control, such as outliving a more mobile spouse and are now vulnerable or outlasting a pension or their retirement funds. Women make up 60 percent of the seniors facing the threat of hunger.
Many seniors who can afford the cost of food, lack the mobility to get the food and prepare their own meals nor have anyone to help them. They may have no family nearby or their friends aren’t able to help because they may be in the same situation.
Some seniors are too proud to let others know they are hungry. They are humiliated and don’t want to be a bother. They want so much to stay in their home that they’ll go hungry without a fuss. They are afraid they’ll be forced into assisted living or a nursing facility.
They are getting by on cold cereal, or the wrong kind of food but that is not adequate. It is vital that they receive the proper nutrients to stay healthy. Half of all health concerns affecting older Americans are directly connected to poor diet. A recent study showed that food insecure seniors are at higher risk of experiencing negative nutrition and health consequences. Specifically, seniors at risk of hunger are:
- 50 percent more likely to be diabetic;
- Twice as likely to report fair or poor general health;
- Three times more likely to suffer depression;
- Nearly 60 percent more likely to have congestive heart failure or experience a heart attack; and
- Twice as likely to report having gum disease or asthma.
These are some of the reasons for the Montgomery Area Council On Aging and the Meals On Wheels program. Through donations and volunteers, we are able to deliver hot, nutritious meals Monday through Friday to home-bound seniors. At this time we have the funds and volunteers to be able to deliver 350 meals daily. There is a waiting list that averages about 400.
Enabling seniors to stay in their own homes means they remain happier, extend their independence, and can stay connected to the community and surroundings that provide them comfort. Meals On Wheels is more than a meal. It is a friendly smile and conversation, and it provides peace of mind. The smile and daily check is a critical part of our mission because many times our volunteer may be the only person that the senior sees each day. The compassion delivered with the meal allows Meals On Wheels to show our home-bound seniors they are not forgotten and that we care.
Donna Marietta is executive director of the Montgomery Area Council on Aging, a nonprofit that provides senior services to five counties in central Alabama.