A federal nutrition program that has worked to give elders across the North Shore multiple meals a day is celebrating its 50th anniversary
The National Senior Nutrition Program offers nutritious meals to elders in nursing homes, and through delivery and pickup options so elders can maintain a social aspect of their life while staying healthy.
The National Senior Nutrition Program is funded through the Older Americans Act, which provides funding for different food programs for seniors. Something that started five decades ago has shown to be more helpful than ever in recent years.
Especially now with skyrocketing prices on meals and food, this program helps a lot of elders, according to Fatima Dechaves, a Meals on Wheels client. Dechaves also mentioned that the pandemic made it even harder for her to go out, so having her meals delivered during scary times was a big comfort.
“Right now I can’t afford anymore,” Dechaves said. “I really think it’s helpful for anyone.”
Meghan Ostrander, the nutrition director at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services, is working hard to try and make a full recovery after the impact of the pandemic.
According to Ostrander, 900 meals a day are being delivered. There are also 10 congregate meal sites, but some are still shut down from the pandemic.
The sites that are no longer operational are delivering food to their customers. However, sites that are open are offering programs like LGBT night, which occurs once a month, according to Ostrander. They also offer a Portuguese lunch four days a week. This lunch is available to anyone, but specifically designed for Portuguese speakers.
“In terms of the home delivered meals, there was the Caribbean meals, and a variety of other meals to hit different cultures. We also offer therapeutic meals that are prepared for people with medical conditions or special dietary requirements, ”said Nathan Lamb, director of community and outreach relations at the Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services.
They also offer allergen-free meals, Chinese meals, and a few other options to be as diverse as possible.
“Since I’ve been in the field, all the agencies that are in the National Senior Nutrition Program try as often as possible to offer meals that are culturally appropriate and meet people’s different dietary needs,” Ostrander said.
According to Ostrander, this was not always the case, but over the course of the past few decades, the programs have worked to become more inclusive.
Angie Fitzgerald, nutrition director at Mystic Valley Elder Services, spoke on her hopes for the future of cultural meals.
“I think there are a lot of groups we probably aren’t reaching,” said Fitzgerald. “We offer a lot of choices and variety, but we have to continue to adapt and change.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic took away a lot of the cultural meal options. For those who were congregate members at Cambridge-Somerville Elder Services, they only offered grab and go options of sandwiches and salads. Recently, more options have returned. The Omicron variant set everything back for a while, but more meal options are available once again.
According to Fitzgerald, Mystic Valley Elder Services had a similar grab and go option, which she now believes will stick forever.
During the peak of COVID, many elders needed food delivered. According to Ostrander, two routes had to be added. The meals went from 900 in a day, to about 1,200 in the spring of 2020. Since then, they are now back down to 900 meals being delivered in a day.
“We have surveyed some people, and a few have said that they are not ready to return to the meal programs,” Ostrander said. “The people that are coming back are really happy to have the socialization opportunity.”
Finding a personal connection
Two-thirds of respondents to a survey created by Cambridge-Somerville Elder Services said that seeing their driver every day dropping off their meals makes them feel less lonely, according to Lamb. He said they form personal connections with them. When someone else substitutes for their drivers, the seniors often ask where they are, according to Ostrander.
“Sometimes it is the only person they see in the day,” Lamb said.
Similarly, Mystic Valley Elder Services Meals on Wheels members appreciated seeing their driver. Even their quick interactions meant everything to the seniors, according to Fitzgerald.
Not only are the drivers forming personal connections with the seniors, but everyone is. Ostrander mentioned that her favorite part of the organization is getting to know everyone’s stories. Lamb loves giving seniors a chance to be independent and social again.
“My favorite part of the program is interacting with the seniors and gaining personal relationships,” said Isaiah Banks, the food service director at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services. Being able to help and learn from them is what I enjoy most. ”
The pandemic, according to Banks, was rough on everyone, but especially the seniors. Not only were they losing out on a huge social aspect of their lives, but their food was compromised as well.
“People who live alone start to think why they would want to cook one whole big meal for just me,” said a resident of the Cambridge-Somerville Elder Services at the Cambridge site.
Residents talked about the pasta and meatloaf meals that were starting to come back after the pandemic, however they are thankful for any type of meal they can get, even if it is a sandwich or salad.
A lot of residents are more so excited to get their social lives back and be able to do the things they love again. In many cases this meant eating with their friends. While not everyone lives in the senior center, many come in for mealtimes. It is difficult to recognize as an elder that life is not the same as it was. It takes courage to come get help.
“I felt intimidated coming to a senior center. It took me 25 years for me to realize I needed to. I still feel like I’m 25, ”said Lindsay Ivy, a congregate meal member of the Cambridge-Somerville Elder Services.
While it was tough at first, Linda claims she has gotten to know so many people and is able to be more independent through the program. The main aspect of the program, according to Lamb, is supporting seniors and their independence, especially for those who want to live in their homes.
In the future, Ostrander hopes to see an expansion in the cultural offerings. The pandemic has put many meals on hold, like a Caribbean lunch, so she is hoping that not only for things to reopen, but to increase.
“The nature of elder services, people aren’t aware that they exist, until they need us, and then they need us right away,” Lamb said.
Lamb wants more people to know that elder services are available, and to spread awareness about their purpose, so that people can join the program earlier, and so more people can help others in need.
Eventually everyone will get old. Most people want to keep their independence, so it is important to keep growing and expanding.
“We are all getting older. Statistics indicate that we are going to need assistance to keep living in our own homes, and it is likely that is what we would prefer to do, ”said Lamb.