Irene Christie is 93. She can no longer drive, stand for long, or cook, not even to bake the pies that were once her specialty. But when the San Dimas woman signed up for home-delivered meals, she had to wait nearly six months for the first one.
Like thousands of seniors in Southern California who would benefit from meals delivered to their homes, she struggled to get by. A friend and her children sometimes brought her food, but she didn't like to ask for it. "I'm a person who likes to be self-sufficient," she said. "I ate what there was to eat." Her daughter, who travels a lot, had suggested home-delivered meals in February, but weeks stretched into months because, in the San Gabriel Valley, 167 elderly people are on a waiting list for food.
The local hot-meal program, like hundreds of other food programs in the United States, does not have enough money to feed all people 60 and older who are legally entitled to five meals a week, not counting holidays. So program officials assign points to people who need assistance. Those coming home from the hospital who have no support get the most points and may not wait very long. Those like Christie, who can get by for a while, must wait until someone dies or the program finds more funding. "We basically do triage," says Donald Herring, director of Intervale Senior Services, part of the YWCA of San Gabriel Valley.
Sometimes, depending on where they live, even seniors just out of the hospital can't get meals immediately. "It's a nightmare," says Leah Monson, program director for the Southeast Area Social Services Funding Authority in Whittier. "People die while they are on the waiting lists. They are that frail." At her program, 50 to 70 seniors are always waiting for a meal.
This food is crucial for many elderly people--sometimes, it may be their only meal of the day. Without it, malnourishment can take its toll. Breaking a bone, getting the flu or having surgery can prove too physically taxing; seniors may be forced into nursing homes prematurely or have to spend more days in the hospital when they get sick.
Then there are the emotional benefits. For some seniors, the man or woman who delivers their food is the only person they ever see, providing much-needed contact with the outside world.
Assigning points based on need is a kind of rationing system for older people in the richest country in the world. As more seniors need food, rationing will probably become more severe. In 1996, the most recent year for which there are data, 41% of the 4,000 programs in the country had waiting lists, according to the federal Administration on Aging.
In California, nearly 11 million meals were delivered to 56,000 home-bound elderly people in 2000. Hundreds more are waiting, although no one knows the exact number, since waiting lists come and go depending on the season and the flow of money to the food providers. In Los Angeles, 481 people were waiting in April, according to Rushmore Cervantes, interim general manager for the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging. At the moment, he says, no one is waiting, because additional funding has erased the waiting list for a while. By 2010, there will be almost twice as many people 85 and older than there were in 1990. By contrast, the number of people 65 to 74 will grow only 16% over the same period. The need for meals is greatest among people older than 80, more than half of whom have disabilities that prevent them from shopping and preparing food.
Congress anticipated the elderly's need for food aid 30 years ago, establishing two programs--one that provided hot meals at places where seniors could gather and one that used local food providers to deliver meals to homes.
Federal funding has not kept pace with the need, particularly squeezing the home-delivered meals program, which has caused waiting lists to swell. The other program has also suffered, although demand for meals served at senior centers has not grown as rapidly.