"We need more people to support the senior centers; to come to the centers in Mammoth, Salem and Viola," said Betty Teague, In-Service Coordinator. "We're open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and we serve lunch from 11:15 a.m. to noon. You may not think that you need our services right now, but, tomorrow, you may find that you need home delivered meals due to an unforseen circumstance."
Kay E. Brown, with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) provided a sobering snapshot of the future of America's senior centers in testimony before the U.S. Senate's Special Committee on Aging in early September.
She said home-delivered meals (HDM) and transportation were the most frequently requested services, with information, home-care services and respite (temporary caregiving so a family member can take a break) experiencing the largest increases in demand over the past year.
In Fulton County, the story is very much the same. "For the people who receive Home Delivered Meals, sometimes the person who brings their meal to them is the only contact they have outside of their home, to see if they're alright," said Teague. "With the socialization here at the centers, this is their chance to get one good meal a day and get some socialization. Without that, they might be in a nursing home right now."
"This year has been the worst, and it's just getting worse," said Connie Godwin, county coordinator. "We do everything we can to save. We need extra help at all of the centers, but we can't afford to hire anyone."
President of the Arkansas Association of Area Agencies on Aging, Tim Herr, agrees. "Centers across the state face the most serious threat ever to their existence."
Herr said federal funding for meals programs has remained flat for many years and state funding has decreased. "The stimulus money centers received last year isn't there this year. Local donations and other funds are also down significantly. At the same time, costs are going up. This is obviously a recipe for disaster," Herr warned.
Herr describes senior centers as a lifeline for independence. "The services they provide are links in a chain of services that provide a comprehensive home-and-community-based lifeline for seniors," Herr explained. "That lifeline enables many seniors to stay in their own homes in spite of their physical and age-related limitations. If you remove a link in the chain, such as home--delivered meals, then the lifeline breaks."
"Older Americans have been hard hit by the economic recession for reasons such as depreciating home values and retirement accounts. These increasing economic challenges may lead to increased need for services," Brown advised committee members.
"If anybody can squeeze blood out of a turnip, believe me, the senior centers have done it for many, many years," Herr said. "They have done an unbelievable job of providing maximum help to seniors on minimum dollars. They've raised their own money, utilized volunteers, reduced paid staff, trimmed costs and done everything they could to avoid reducing the help they provide to seniors, or having to shut their doors. Now the turnip's dry and they can't squeeze any more."
Herr sees the solution as a matter of setting priorities. "If the people of Arkansas want seniors to have senior centers, home--delivered meals, socialization and the ability to age in their own homes, then they will make that a priority."
The Fulton County Senior Centers are looking for two immediate needs: volunteers and donations.
"They can help financially, is the main thing," said Godwin. "This is a non-profit organization, so any money donated is tax deductible. All of our expenses have gone up tremendously, and our funding has gone down. You know how much expenses have gone up just by going to the grocery store. We also have transportation expense, insurance expense -- all the services we offer have gone up in expense and our funding has gone down. It may come to the point, it's possible that one will have to close, or all three may have to close two to three days a week. These are all possibilities that we are looking at right now. We provide a lot of good services, and it would be a shame to lose that assistance here in Fulton County.
Another way residents can help out the centers is by renting the building in Salem.
"We rent the building in Salem out for a dance every Tuesday night for $5, we have Bingo every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and we rent the building out for special events, such as birthdays, wedding receptions, anniversaries and family reunions plus business meetings can be held here," said Teague. "We can also cater the meals for anyone, so it's really a great location for events and parties. The building is available for rent afternoons, evenings and weekends."
For more information about the centers or the services they provide, call Betty Teague at 870-895-4228.