Budget Crunch Crunches Lunches For Elderly: Report

WASHINGTON -- More older Americans will miss meals and other services as federal spending fails to keep pace with rising need, according to a report released Tuesday.

In a survey of its local affiliates in nine states, nearly three-quarters of respondents told the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, a nonprofit that advocates for senior services, that they would be reducing senior nutrition programs as a result of an ongoing budget squeeze. More than half said they had reduced staffing levels or hours in response to recent cuts.

Part of the problem is the budget cuts known as sequestration, and part of the problem is that funding through the Older Americans Act has been flat at about $2 billion for years, while the elderly population has continued to grow. From 2010 to 2015, the government expects the number of Americans at least 60 years of age to rise 15 percent to 65.7 million.

"Even before sequestration, stagnant federal investment prevented programs from growing along with the aging population," the report says. "Now the poor economy has created increased demand for services as families struggle to support and care for older relatives, and as more older adults struggle to make ends meet."

The federal Administration on Aging partners with more than 600 local agencies to distribute meals and other services to roughly 11 million seniors, with the goal of helping them live independently in their own homes. But the government only pays for a portion of the services provided and private donations make up the rest. Nearly two-thirds of agencies surveyed said they have been able to offset federal spending cuts at least in part with money from other sources this year. Many of those agencies fear they will be unable to do the same thing next year, however.

Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, cited studies that indicate more spending on modest programs that help seniors live independently results in less spending on hospitals and nursing homes.

"It makes no sense to cut a program that saves federal dollars in the long run by ensuring that older adults can age with dignity and independence in their own homes and communities rather than in a more costly institutional setting," Markwood said in a press release.

The Obama administration estimated this year that sequestration would result in 4 million fewer meals distributed to seniors' homes by Meals On Wheels volunteers (the administration expected senior nutrition services, which includes meals served in congregant settings, would support a total 219 million meals this year). The Meals On Wheels Association of America has also surveyed its members about the recent spending cuts and detailed the losses.

Some agencies have canceled meals, and others have instituted waiting lists. Pamela Gwynn, 63, told HuffPost in October she'd been affected by sequestration.

"They took my lunches away because the sequester cut their budget so much they couldn't afford to pay the driver and they cut back to a once-a-week delivery," said Gwynn, who lives in Crawfordsville, Ind. She said she couldn't fit seven meals in her freezer.

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