South Florida seniors who are frail, disabled or living alone will find it harder to get home-delivered meals now that long-predicted federal cuts in aging service dollars have reached the local level.
Broward Meals on Wheels, which serves more than 1,300 seniors a week, instituted a waiting period this month for the first time in many years. Some families who had filled out paperwork and were expecting their meals to start arriving soon are being told their start date is unknown.
The recent cuts will only make the situation worse in Palm Beach County, which already was dealing with a home-delivered meals waiting list this year. Now the line will get longer as programs struggle to serve the most needy and stretch their shrinking dollars, said Jaime Estremera-Fitzgerald, CEO of the Area Agency on Aging of Palm Beach/Treasure Coast, which plans and manages services for a five-county area.
“It’s so frustrating to keep finding out there is a waiting list for everything,” said Jeanette Rivera, of Coral Springs, who had recently applied for Broward Meals on Wheels for her parents.
Seniors who currently receive home-delivered meals will not be dropped.
The federal Older Americans Act finances lunches and home-delivered prepared food, as well as vanrides, senior center activities and some at-home care services like light housekeeping. Programs are open to anyone age 60 and older regardless of income, although those “in greatest social and economic need” get priority under the act.
When funding decreases, required by the sequestration, were implemented, some programs lost more than the anticipated 5 percent bite.
“[Program providers] are scrambling, but there’s not much we can do. The reality is less people can be served,” said Estremera-Fitzgerald, who estimated his service area lost about $500,000, about 8 percent of its Older Americans Act dollars.
Meal programs were among those hit hardest by the sequestration, state officials said. Among Florida’s total $5.6 million Older American’s Act decrease, $3.5 million came out money for home-delivered meals or hot lunch sites.
Broward Meals on Wheels Executive Director Mark Adler saw an 8 percent decrease for home-delivered meals, double what he was expecting. He said about 65 percent of the $2.5 million in federal money he gets for that service comes from the Older Americans Act.
Just since last week, the waiting list already stretches 40 people long.
“They understand these are the cuts everyone has been talking about. They tell us they hope they won’t have to wait long but we tell them we aren’t sure,” Adler said.
Rivera, who is fighting breast cancer, had inquired last month about getting Older Americans Act financed in-home care services that might allow her parents to stay in their own condo. Her parents, who are in their mid-70s, had to move into Rivera’s house recently after her mother had a stroke and could no longer care for her father, a Parkinson’s patient.
But she discovered there was a long waiting list. She said the case worker suggested Rivera at least apply for home-delivered meals, which would free her from cooking for her parents while she underwent cancer treatments.
Then, last week, she found out even that help is no longer available. “Our family has been turned upside-down,” she said.
Program managers are looking at ways to cut costs. Adler said families who can afford it are being encouraged to purchase the agency’s Complete Cuisine home-delivery service at $41 a week, or take advantage of Meals on Wheels volunteer shoppers who purchase and deliver groceries that seniors pay for.
Estremera-Fitzgerald said some hot lunch programs are compensating by cutting out breakfasts, if they were serving them, or looking at closing less busy locations.
Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service, a nonprofit agency based in Boca Raton, often receives calls from seniors needing home-delivered meals, which in that area come through The Volen Center in Boca Raton. “But we know many people, when we refer them, may not be able to get access for a long time, if at all,” said Ruth Rales CEO and president Danielle Hartman.
So working with the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County and private donors, Ruth Rales plans to start its own home-delivered kosher meal program in the fall. The Jewish Association for Residential Care, which serves developmentally disabled adults, also will be involved.
Hartman said the goal is to serve about 35 to 50 elders in the Boca Raton and Delray Beach area.