Opinion / We The People

Meals on Wheels Delivers More Than Lunch

By – Michael R. Fuljenz

Americans are generous people.  The World Giving Index, the biggest annual survey of giving, is released at the end of each year.  Last December, after a survey of 135 countries by Gallup pollsters, the United States of America was ranked #1 among all 135 nations.  The World Giving Index looks at three ways of giving: (1) the percentage of people who donate money to charity, (2) the percentage of people who volunteer their time and (3) those who help a stranger in a typical month. The U.S. is #1 helping a stranger (77%) and in volunteering time (45%), giving America the best over ranking among the nations.

My wife has been one of those volunteers for 14 years.  She delivers Meals on Wheels in her own car, with her own gas to the elderly and others in need under the auspices of Nutrition & Services for Seniors in Beaumont, Texas.  She has collected warm memories from dozens of seniors she has served over the years.  Here’s one of the many people she has served:

“Soon after Mr. and Mrs. F, a precious petite couple, started receiving meals from Nutrition & Services for Seniors Meals-on-Wheels (MOW), Mr. F. died.  Mrs. F became a widow and her house was badly damaged by Hurricane Rita, so she was displaced up north for a while.  With government assistance, a small new house was built.  When Christmas approached, she was sad that all of her decorations had been lost.  A group got together and the smile on her face when her new decorations arrived was priceless.  Each year after that, she always looked forward to just the right gifts from Nutrition & Services for Seniors.  She received meals for 10 years until she passed away.  Mrs. F was so funny.  I remember all the times that she asked me to explain her mail and how I had to teach and re-teach her how to use the thermostat in her new home and how each visit she gave me a hug as her thank you to MOW for daily food and daily visits.” – Karen Fuljenz

Compare this warm personal experience (along with warm food) with the often impersonal and much more expensive hospitalization options for seniors. According to the Administration on Aging, 92% of Meals on Wheels recipients say they like it because “they can continue to live in their own home,” but this is only possible if more Americans volunteer to be the givers of good gifts to widows like Mrs. F.

Without Meals on Wheels providing daily nutrition for homebound elderly and disabled individuals, millions of older Americans would likely have to be placed in costly nursing homes. One year of meals delivered to the home daily costs just about $10 a day or $3,600 per year, while the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services estimate the average cost of one Medicare DAY in a hospital at $1,156.

Meals on Wheels save the extended families (or the government) from paying for the crippling costs of long-term care in a nursing home: The average cost of nursing home care is $57,878 per patient per year.

We all pay for Medicare services through steep taxes, so why don’t more conservatives and liberals alike choose the far less expensive method of personal contact, which most seniors prefer?  Instead of arguing for more taxes to support the elderly (while not giving much of their own time or money), why don’t our politicians call for more targeted volunteerism, and volunteer themselves (without TV cameras along)?

We probably all know someone who could use help from Meals on Wheels.  An elderly person at home often is incapable of shopping or elaborate cooking. They end up microwaving TV dinners or not taking care to create a balanced meal. It is estimated that half of all diseases affecting older Americans are partly linked to malnutrition or a lack of nutritious food.  Seniors also feel emotionally alone, cut off by distance or circumstances from family.  Meals on Wheels helps with both problems – isolation and malnutrition.


The Wartime Origin of Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels (MOW) began in London during the German rocket attack “blitz” in World War II. As a result of those buzz bombs, many Britons lost their homes or the implements to cook, so the Women’s Volunteer Service for Civil Defense got together to provide meals for those displaced people. This was all voluntary service at first, with no connection to any government agency.  The MOW idea then migrated to the U.S. in 1954, starting in Philadelphia, at the request of the Philadelphia Health & Welfare Council.

Today, 60 years later, MOW oversees 5000 local Senior Nutrition programs in all 50 states, with over one million volunteers delivering meals. The program is very cost effective, but there is a crying need for more volunteers. In 2008, the Meals on Wheels Association of America Foundation commissioned a study on “The Causes, Consequences, and Future of Senior Hunger in America.”  The report was released at a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging in March 2008. The study found that over five million seniors (11.4% of all U.S. seniors) have experienced some form of food insecurity. Of these, about 2.5 million were at-risk of hunger, and about 750,000 suffered from hunger due to financial limits.

The 2008 report also found that those living alone were twice as likely to experience hunger compared to married seniors. The report concluded that “hunger and a lack of proper nutrients significantly increase the risk that seniors will suffer from poor or fair health that not only diminishes their quality of life, but also increases the burden on our long-term care and health insurance systems.”

Research from Brown University found that the more states spend on programs like MOW, the lower their percentage of nursing home residents. A modest investment in MOW to combat senior hunger and promote good nutrition goes a long way in reducing our country’s healthcare expenditures.

Here’s another example: Jean, a 78-year-old widow, lost the use of her right hand after suffering a stroke.  After 45 days in the hospital, she returned to her home of 48 years, but with little use of her right hand she couldn’t prepare meals safely. She turned to Meals on Wheel, saying, “I couldn’t manage by myself. If I didn’t get Meals on Wheels, I don’t know where I would be…maybe living in a nursing home.”


The Moral Imperative of Caring for the Elderly

The modern world has turned the word “charity” into an epithet, but charity is merely the King James Bible translation of the Greek word agape, which means something far more profound than our modern use of the word charity.  It means outgoing concern, a respect for others, reflected in our caring deeds.

Today, it is common for governments to want to take over the role of care-giver.  While the IRS extracts money from unwilling taxpayers, bureaucrats give aid to often unthankful recipients, who view financial aid as their “entitlement” under law.  How much better would it be for our nation if millions of “cheerful givers” would provide meals to thankful recipients?  With so many of the Baby Boomers entering their senior years soon, it’s imperative that we recapture the original meaning of charity – outgoing concern.

In that regard, I’m happy to report that the world is turning a corner in the spirit of giving.  Not only did the United States move from #4 (in 2012) to #1 (in 2013) in the global Index of Giving, but the rest of the world also became a more generous place last year. Despite the recent recession and a general slowdown in the global economy, the average percentage of people donating money, volunteering time and helping a stranger all increased in 2013: In India, 244 million people gave money to charity in a typical month last year, up from 163 million the previous year.  And here’s the greatest hope for the future: Since 2011, the biggest increase in participation in volunteering has been among the 15-24 year olds. Over the last five years, this age group has gone from the least likely to volunteer to the second most likely to volunteer!

Meals on Wheels delivers more than dinner.  It delivers hope, love and companionship. Volunteers also give each home a quick safety check, enlisting help from professionals when warranted. MOW delivers well-nourished lives – independent, happy and healthy seniors in their own homes, not nursing homes.

It doesn’t take much time or money to celebrate our seniors, invest in their health and well-being and save our tax dollars.

Please consider volunteering.

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