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Meals on Wheels provides social connection for area seniors and volunteers

Pat Donahue delivers a meal to Harriet Omlie during Donahue's weekly Meals on Wheels delivery shift Thursday afternoon. The program, which is run through the Grand Forks Senior Center, serves approximately 75 home-bound clients each week. (Photo by Garrett Richie/Grand Forks Herald)

Harriet Omlie lived on her six-generation family farm for 80 years. Now, she lives in an apartment in Grand Forks, where she enjoys visits from her daughters as well as another daily guest.

On Thursday afternoons, Pat Donahue, 72, and Jim Corbit, 90, deliver a hot lunch to Omlie as part of the Meals on Wheels program.

"This is such a nice surprise," Omlie said Thursday when the two showed up with an extra guest -- Melissa Korslien, public relations manager for the Grand Forks Senior Center.

"They're wonderful," Omlie said of the meals, which are the same ones prepared and served at the senior center. "Just super. Everything's delicious."

Omlie invited the three to "have a chair" and chat for a few minutes before they had to move on to the next deliveries on their route. Omlie even called her daughter to come over to see her visitors.

"I really do get a lot of enjoyment from it," Donahue said.

For Omlie and others who utilize the program, including Corbit, the chance to socialize is almost as important as the meal itself.

"It is so much more than a meal," said Paulla Solem, Meals on Wheels coordinator with the senior center.

While Donahue and Corbit deliver meals year round, last week was Community Champions week, which is when well-known community members come and deliver meals with regular volunteers.

"It takes a community effort to feed our seniors," Korslien said.

Grand Forks City Council President Dana Sande was one of 2015's Community Champions.

In 2014, 23 community leaders delivered meals, including Mayor Mike Brown, local state legislators and area business leaders.

Saving money

Between the nutritious food and social interaction, Meals on Wheels is a cost-effective way to help seniors stay in their homes.

"One year of meals served is the same cost of six days in a nursing home or one day in the hospital," Korslien said.

The cost of one meal through the program is a suggested donation of $4.25, although if seniors can't afford it, they can pay whatever they can, or nothing at all.

The Grand Forks Senior Center is in charge of Grand Forks' Meals on Wheels program, which has an annual budget of about $160,000.

The program is run by about 50 volunteer drivers and meal-runners.

It is funded federally through the Older Americans Act, but also by state and local funds, including grants and community donations.

While Meals on Wheels receives federal funding, costs for community and home-based services such as Meals on Wheels are approximately 60 percent less than nursing home placements, according to information in "Feeding Grandpa," a booklet provided by North Dakota Senior Service Providers.

More than half of North Dakota's nursing home residents are on Medicaid, the booklet says.

While 92 percent of home-delivered meal clients say the meals allow them to remain in their homes, the booklet says.

Growing Demand

Meals on Wheels is also beneficial to the quality of life for seniors, a population that has grown in Grand Forks. From 2012 to 2013, the population of people 60 and older in Grand Forks increased by about 3.7 percent, according to U.S. census data.

According to one American Association for Retired Persons report, 90 percent of seniors want to age in place, and Meals on Wheels helps them do that.

In 2013, Grand Forks Meals on Wheels was responsible for delivering 22,459 meals to 181 individual clients, which includes congregate meals served in some senior living complexes.

In 2014, that number decreased to 21,112 meals to 164 people, but the Grand Forks Senior Center staff said that number is expected to increase this year, and they want to help identify more seniors that could benefit from the program.

"Right now we're serving between 75 and 80 people per day," Solem said.

Ending the stigma

One strategy for helping reach more seniors and homebound individuals is to help end the stigma surrounding Meals on Wheels.

The senior center staff emphasized that there is no low-income qualification for the program. Rather, seniors must be 60 or older, on a restriction-free diet, and considered homebound.

Solem said she is glad to work with seniors to see if they qualify, so they can be enrolled in the program.

Meals on Wheels also doesn't have to be long-term.

For some seniors who can't drive in the winter or who might be homebound after a surgery, the program is a great way to have access to both meals and company during the winter months or recovery time.

Garrett Richie
Garrett Richie is a general assignment reporter and digital writer for The Grand Forks Herald. Richie is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is formerly of The Ludington Daily News in Ludington, Mich. Have a good story idea? Contact Richie by either phone or email, both of which are listed below. If you would like to comment on a story, send a letter to the editor with Richie's name and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words, and all letters are subject to editing. Email to letters@gfherald.com or mail to The Grand Forks Herald.
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