As the weather cools and 2017 draws to a close, families across the Midlands are making plans and asking themselves questions like: At whose house will we celebrate Christmas this year? What should we cook for Thanksgiving? Should we send some baked treats to our children’s schools?
But for many senior citizens, the holidays are far more dismal. While children excitedly make Christmas lists and adults shop for sentimental gifts for their significant others, some elderly individuals must come to grips with loneliness. Many are unable to travel, buy groceries, or cook food for themselves.
Senior Resources, Inc., is a non-profit organization based in Columbia that provides resources and coordinates services to keep many Midlands seniors in their homes, remaining somewhat independent and not needing to move to assisted living or nursing homes. Senior Resources offers many services; for example, they oversee a program called Senior Companions, where volunteers assist with light housekeeping and caregiver respite. They also operate the Columbia chapter of Meals on Wheels, a volunteer-driven program that delivers hot meals to the homes of elderly, disabled, frail, homebound, and needful senior citizens across the city.
“Some of them truly just don’t have anybody”: A closer look at Meals on Wheels
Currently, Columbia’s Meals on Wheels delivers over 400 meals a day; the meals are catered, then packaged and prepared each morning at two centers by groups of dedicated volunteers. The meals are regulated by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office on Aging to ensure seniors are being provided with safe foods that meet dietary needs for seniors, such as low sodium content. Another group of volunteers arrives to pick up the meals and deliver them through over 40 driving routes to the homes of seniors across the city. For those individuals who live in outlying areas, the program delivers a week’s worth of frozen meals at a time.
Meals on Wheels not only helps meet the dietary and nutrition needs of needful Midlands seniors, but in many cases, it also serves a vital safety check in the lives of individuals who are often alone at home. “Our volunteers really get to know their clients, and they let us know if something’s not right–if they’re declining in health, if they’re not eating well,” explained Bridget Winston, the Communications Coordinator at Senior Resources, Inc. “Some of them just truly don’t have anybody. Over three fourths of the Meals on Wheels clients live alone with no caregivers. Some of them don’t have anybody who visits them or any family that’s still alive. Others don’t have family in town, or their family members are working all day and can only really help them on the weekends. And for them, we can provide that peace of mind to make sure somebody gets there every day.”
Winston says that Midlands seniors suffer from two major needs: hunger and loneliness, both of which Meals on Wheels addresses. Although volunteers are only asked to deliver meals, many often opt to change lightbulbs, replace smoke alarm batteries, and help satisfy other basic needs. Volunteers have also found injured seniors.
At times, volunteers have found Meals on Wheels clients in distressful situations. “In those cases, they’ve fallen in the past 12 to 24 hours, and nobody has been there except the Meals on Wheels volunteer,” explained Winston. “We train our volunteers to call 911 if someone’s not answering the door…We have to make sure they’re okay, that they’ve eaten, that they’ve gotten out of bed.”
Most Meals on Wheels clients qualified to receive assistance due to low income or health conditions that are exacerbated by poor nutrition. Most cannot drive, and many have physical disabilities that restrain them from being able to cook and clean much in their own homes. Almost 75% of Meals on Wheels clients are actually women–mostly widows who now live alone.
Currently, Meals on Wheels has a waiting list of over 100 needful seniors. Senior Resources, Inc., currently cannot serve those seniors due to a lack of funding and volunteers. The organization did start a pantry with senior-friendly non-perishable foods to help those who are on the waiting list, but according to Winston, grocery shopping for seniors can be more difficult than most people realize. “They can’t have high-sugar or high-carb foods. Some can’t use a can opener or can’t eat something crunchy like a granola bar. We need foods that are easy for them to open and don’t necessarily need to be cooked. We also need household cleaning products and toiletries for them.”
Although meeting the needs of elderly Midlands residents has been challenging, Senior Resources, Inc., has actually developed a program that was so inspiring, Meals on Wheels America adopted it as a model nationwide. Pet Pals was established after volunteers were discovering that many of their seniors were sharing their meals with their pets, because they couldn’t afford or access pet food.
“Pets are important companions who provide protection and love to the seniors who live alone,” explained Winston. The organization began collecting pet food and applying for grants to sustain Pet Pals, but like many of their efforts, it is driven mostly by volunteers and community donations.
According to Winston, many of the senior clients served by Meals on Wheels are veterans, former business owners, and people who were actively engaged in the community before their health declined. “These aren’t people trying to take advantage of the system. These are people who built our community and served our country, and we feel strongly that it’s our turn to serve them,” she said. Winston discussed that some of their clients have vision loss, dementia, and other problems that make it dangerous for them to cook for themselves every day. “They’re hungry. They have this need because they can’t provide for themselves anymore.”
The Golden Age: Celebrating the past 50 years and planning for the future
In addition to Meals on Wheels, Senior Resources also operates wellness centers, where seniors can gather from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day. Directors who are certified in physical training and fitness do daily exercise programs, brain games, crafts, and other activities with the seniors, who are served a hot lunch. For some seniors, spending the holidays at the wellness centers is their only celebration.
Senior Resources also organizes a program called Foster Grandparents, which matches seniors who want to give back to the community with at-risk youths. The seniors not only help tutor these students academically, but they also act as life mentors who provide advice, guidance, and companionship to troubled children.
Although Senior Resources is in dire need of volunteers and donations to fully meet the needs of seniors in the Midlands area, they are kicking off the holiday season with a celebration. This year marks the 50 year anniversary of Senior Resources’ beginnings, and the nonprofit is honoring the efforts made by staff and volunteers over the last five decades with the Golden Age Gala. The gala will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, at the University of South Carolina Alumni Center at 900 Senate Street. Tickets include access to an open bar and heavy hors d’ouevres, as well as the enjoyment of live music by the Heart ‘n’ Soul Band and the opportunity to participate in a silent auction.
“All of this is really to raise money to continue to reduce our waiting list,” explained Winston, who says the proceeds from the event will fund increase the number of seniors Meals on Wheels is able to serve. “We also want to celebrate our accomplishments and our history, and raise awareness for the work we do.” More information about the Golden Age Gala, including a link to buy tickets and information about how to donate items for the silent auction or purchase a sponsorship, may be found here.
How you can help those in need
As the holidays approach, we are accustomed to looking at ways to help those in need, but seniors often escape our minds. “I don’t think most people realize just how much need is out there,” acknowledged Winston. “Most seniors can’t advocate for themselves. They can’t go out and find their own services and speak up about their needs. It’s in every neighborhood. It’s not limited to certain zip codes–it’s everywhere.”
Michael Sullivan is a retired clinical psychologist who has volunteered for Senior Resources for over 10 years. “Most people need a lot of help to stay in their own homes as they age,” Sullivan explained. “They’re lacking in social supports and isolated from their families, and sometimes the families aren’t very involved and they’d go hungry. They have limitations on their mobility–they don’t drive.” Sullivan acknowledges that one of the benefits of volunteering for Senior Resources is that they “make it easy” on him: “I just pick up the meals and follow the route they give me. It’s a great way to give back.”
A major problem Senior Resources faces as the holidays approach is that many of their volunteers will need time off to travel and celebrate the holidays with their own loved ones. Particularly on Thanksgiving, for example, many of the organization’s regular volunteers are preoccupied and cannot deliver food. Senior Resources hope to find other families, individuals, and community groups who will be willing to help deliver hot meals to needful seniors.
For most volunteers, this is a lunchtime commitment; they are asked to pick up the food between 10:30 and 11:45 a.m., and it takes about an hour to deliver meals. On holidays such as Thanksgiving, meals are packed earlier in the day, so the pick-up for delivery takes place from 9:45 to 11 a.m. to give volunteers more free time during the day to spend with their own families.
“(Volunteering for Meals on Wheels) is a great thing for families to do with kids,” Winston said. “Our clients light up when kids come to the door, and it’s an incredible lesson for the kids. We welcome families to deliver together.”
For Christmas, Senior Resources also offers the opportunity to “adopt a senior” and purchase holiday gifts for the individual in need. “They’re asking for socks, batteries, flashlights, light bulbs, blankets, gift cards to grocery stores–their wish lists would break your heart,” Winston said. The program is called Families Helping Families, and more information about how to sponsor a senior may be found here.
Volunteerism can be very meaningful, not just during the holidays but also for those volunteers who help the organization out year-round. “It’s very satisfying,” Sullivan acknowledged. “Now that I’m retired, this gives meaning and purpose to my life, to help others.”
As Senior Resources celebrates an incredible 50 years of operations, Winston and her co-workers still feel the pressure of knowing that there are many needful seniors who are unable to access their services and care. “It’s not like a soup kitchen; we’re serving each one on a very individual basis,” she explained. “And unfortunately, it’s behind closed doors. Their needs are invisible.”
More information about how to volunteer and donate with Senior Resources over the holidays can be found here.