By Mark Boutwell, Executive Director
Today, all of us, and in particular, older Vermonters, are facing many unexpected challenges – significant increases in inflationary costs for food, heat, transportation, and housing – fuel oil rationing – a catastrophic shortage of direct care workers – and, for the most vulnerable members of our communities, increased nutritional insecurity. Yet, the funding from the federal Older Americans Act and the state general fund, which supports many of the programs that meet their basic needs, has increased only minimally in the past several years. As things stand right now, it is unlikely that that funding will increase substantially anytime soon. We are all working to do more with less.
The upcoming state and national elections offer voters a chance to reset priorities and focus on true pockets of need, one of which is providing for older adults.
Federal funding for the Older Americans Act—which gets passed to the state of Vermont and then to the five area agencies on aging, including Senior Solutions—pays for everything from Meals on Wheels to our busy information and assistance Helpline.
Federal money and state general funds for Seniors Solutions have increased by less than 2% in the last five years.
At the same time, the growing senior population throughout the 46 towns in the Senior Solutions service area and the skyrocketing cost of food have created a funding crisis for area Meals on Wheels programs which are run through the region’s meal sites and senior centers.
According to the most recent federal census data, 23% of Windsor County residents are age 65 and older, up from 15.5% in the 2010 census. And 6% of that senior population lives at or below the federal poverty level, which for a two-person household is $17,240. Many of these older Vermonters receive nutritious dinners delivered by Meals on Wheels volunteers.
With the widening gap in funding and the growing senior population, the meal sites and senior centers which Senior Solutions helps fund in our service area are being financially squeezed and end up having to do a lot more with much less funding.
As we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are experiencing an increased need for senior meals. Over the past couple years, the number of meal deliveries across this area have jumped by more than 30%. At the same time, inflation has pushed food, materials and labor costs up dramatically. Let me repeat that during the same time period, the dollars that Senior Solutions has available to allocate to nutrition programs has increased by less than 2%.
Some savings may be achieved by screening recipients who no longer meet eligibility guidelines out of the Meals on Wheels program, but these savings won’t fill the funding shortfall for meal sites such as the Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock which is courageously maintaining its Meals on Wheels clients. This shortfall forces the meal sites to have to step up their local fundraising to close the gap and meet that need.
Here's where you come in. Press the candidates for the Vermont legislature and U.S. Congress to be clear about what they will do to increase state and Older Americans Act funding. In Windsor County, with one of the highest percentages of older Vermonters in a state ranked third in the nation for its aging population, we can’t continue to get by on the existing funding levels.
We must provide more assistance to our aging parents, neighbors, and friends. For some Meals on Wheels recipients, the person who delivers what could be their only nourishing meal of the day might also be their only contact with the outside world.
Help us find solutions for our seniors so that we can keep these crucial connections in place.
—Mark Boutwell is executive director of Senior Solutions, the Council on Aging in Southeastern Vermont, headquartered in Springfield, Vt.