Guest Columnist

Meals on Wheels funding struggles to keep up with aging Iowa population

Jack Morio of Marion returns to Horizons after making deliveries on his weekly route for Meals on Wheels in Cedar Rapids
Jack Morio of Marion returns to Horizons after making deliveries on his weekly route for Meals on Wheels in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

In a two story brick building on the south side of Cedar Rapids, Horizons Meals on Wheels prepares and delivers over 1,000 meals per day to homebound older adults across five Iowa counties. Volunteers arrive alone or in pairs, gather their supplies and set out to greet clients with a nutritious lunch and a smile. For many of those receiving the service, this will be the only face-to-face contact they will have all day.

Over half of Horizons’ Meals on Wheels clients live alone. Most survive on a monthly budget of less than $1,300 per month for all necessities — housing, transportation, food and health care. They come from all walks of life: retired teachers, accountants, homemakers, factory workers, mechanics — and their numbers are growing year over year. Referrals often come from adult children who have moved to another state. Meals on Wheels is a lifeline, offering a hot meal and a well check five days per week.

Iowa is an aging state. By 2030, the percentage of residents 65 years or older is projected to increase more than 5 percent — and with this increase comes an increased need for services. As our senior population swells, available funding has struggled to keep pace. Horizons has worked diligently to seek process efficiencies, collaborate in order to build capacity, and fundraise to make up the shortfall.

The impact of Meals on Wheels service extends beyond simple nutritive benefits. A Brown University study revealed that an individual receiving Meals on Wheels is 33 percent less likely to fall compared to an individual who qualifies to receive meals but is not actively enrolled in the service. Falls remain the number one cause of fatal injury for older adults in the United States. Further, individuals receiving meals report decreased isolation and loneliness as well as fewer trips to the doctor.

These data are echoed in Horizons client surveys and anecdotal accounts from both clients and volunteers. 85 percent of respondents reported decreased isolation and loneliness and 37 percent reported that the service helped to decrease hospital and doctor visits.

Horizons is working to further leverage the daily interactions Meals on Wheels provides by formalizing the well check with new technology. Using an app, drivers delivering meals will be able to send information in real time about a client’s change in condition to a care coordinator who can connect the individual with further resources and services. This program will be called IWISH: The Iowa Wellness Initiative for Senior Health. This enhanced service will allow Horizons to serve as the eyes and ears of the health care community, checking in with clients a doctor may only see once or twice a year.

Considering the escalating costs of transitioning to a nursing home or spending time in the hospital, innovative community-based solutions to the increasing costs of health care are the best way forward. Horizons’ Meals on Wheels is honored to bring IWISH to the table. Aiding seniors to age gracefully in their homes helps all of us — older adults, their families, the health care industry and the community.

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Sofia Mehaffey is director of community health and nutrition at Horizons: A Family Service Alliance.

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