The Meals on Wheels drivers going to homebound seniors three times a week aren't just delivering food and a friendly check-in.
They’re delivering independence.
“The program helps keep seniors in an independent setting for a much longer period of time,” said Rick Curry, director of Lake City Center. “It’s a money saver to not only them, but to the community and government agencies.”
Meals on Wheels has been available to North Idaho seniors for more than 30 years. It is a nonprofit program of Area Agency on Aging of North Idaho that is partially funded by the Older Americans Act of 1965 and financially facilitated through North Idaho College. Lake City Center and Post Falls Senior Center have separate programs that cover nearly all of North Idaho, but the main goal is the same: To keep seniors fed while keeping an eye on their wellbeing.
"It’s not just a meal that we’re taking to the client. It’s a welfare check,” said Alison McArthur, executive director of the Post Falls Senior Center. "We've saved a couple lives."
When the specially trained delivery drivers notice something is wrong, such as a pile-up of newspapers on the porch or no one answering the door, they call authorities or emergency contacts to check on the senior. McArthur recalled one recipient who got sick and fell during a holiday weekend and couldn't reach the phone. When a Meals on Wheels driver came to the home, several red flags were raised.
"People knew there was a problem, but nobody went in. Our driver knew there was a problem and made a call to the emergency contact," McArthur said. "We got in to find the client on the floor, unable to do anything, dehydrated, not doing well ... This cost her seven days in the hospital and 14 days in rehab. This wouldn't have happened if we had the resources to be there every day."
Meals on Wheels America, the national presence of the program, released research earlier this year that illustrates just how valuable Meals on Wheels is for not only the seniors, but for everyone.
According to research conducted by Brown University's Center for Gerontology and Healthcare Research and funded by the Gary and Mary West Foundation, good things happen when seniors are enrolled in the program. Emergency department visits go down. Nursing home use goes down. Hospitalizations go down.
And so do the associated costs.
"One of the big things that people don't realize in this community is that one year’s worth of Meals on Wheels saved that senior one day in the hospital," McArthur said. "One year’s worth of Meals on Wheels is equal to one day in the hospital.”
Information from the American Hospital Association, presented by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation at www.kff.org, provides a general idea of what Idahoans paid for a day in the hospital in 2015 — Hospital Adjusted Expenses per Inpatient Day: $2,659.
One year's worth of Meals on Wheels, if paying the requested donation of $4 per day for one meal a day, is $1,460, although many times recipients can only pay a small part of that.
"The home-delivered meals are more than nutrition," said Dan English, director of the AAoA. "They provide a social aspect and medical cost prevention."
When seniors who live on meager incomes are being visited regularly and eating well, the odds that they will end up in the hospital decrease by at least 30 percent, the "More than A Meal" research finds.
"Meals on Wheels' clients report fewer falls, which cost our nation $31 billion each year," states information on the Meals on Wheels America website, www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org.
Kootenai Health has had a positive relationship with the local programs for many years because health care providers realize the value of the system. Meals on Wheels is one resource the hospital recommends to eligible outgoing patients to ensure they receive proper nutrition, whether healing short-term or in need of longer enrollment.
"The benefit of having a senior being able to stay in their home and receive meals is huge," said Chris Magera, manager of Kootenai Health's social work department. "It potentially supports their family members. If they're younger and have a family member that is in the age bracket that’s eligible, one benefit is that they're not going from work every night to help Grandma prepare meals."
English said nutrition is the single largest budget area for the AAoA, and the local branch covers the five northern counties.
"It’s over a half-million dollars in one year that we spend on nutrition programs, and the two main programs are congregate meals, which are usually at senior centers, and the home-delivered meals," he said. "They both are running about a quarter-million dollars a year. That’s larger than any other program area that we have."
And yet, the need is growing.
According to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, the 60-and-older population in America is growing at the fastest pace in history. Nearly 15 million people will turn 65 in the next four years. By 2030, one in five people in America will be in that category. That’s more than 70 million people, twice what that number was in 2000.
Plus, more seniors are moving into the area, which is causing Kootenai County's senior population to grow faster than other parts of the state. Curry reported that in January 2015, Lake City Center provided 1,557 meals to homebound seniors and those who could attend the congregate meals on site. That number soared to 2,882 the following January.
The senior population is growing faster than the program can keep up, in many cases. Eight out of 10 programs across the country rely on federal funds, which also support the programs in North Idaho. Program coordinators are concerned about budget cuts when they need funds to be coming in, not going out. The $4 requested donation covers only about half of the food cost for each meal.
"I’m worried now," McArthur said. "I thought I was going to have five more years before the worry comes on, but I’m seeing it become more because we’re having more and more seniors move here and know about these programs or have heard about it so now our numbers are going up."
By keeping seniors in their homes and contributing to their independence, the program is keeping down costs for the rest of society as well as giving families peace of mind. And nine out of 10 seniors would much rather be in their own home than in the hospital or a nursing home.
"Seniors are what made this country great," Curry said. "This country raised people to be independent. The longer we can keep them in that sense of independence, the better for them and the better for the overall community."