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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016

Senior centers facing budget crunch

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Sikeston Senior OAKS Center Administrator YuVone Craig delivers a hot meal to James Cecil.
SIKESTON -- By mid-morning each weekday Harold Hodge makes his way over to the Senior OAKS Center on Cresap Street in Sikeston.

He arrives just in time to help his peers piece together a giant jigsaw puzzle. And after working up an appetite, Hodges enjoys the company of others while taking in a hot meal.

But the Sikeston resident also appreciates other benefits of the center.

"I'm 70 years old and have a number of health problems, including diabetes," Hodge said. "I live alone. It's important for me to get a balanced, diabetic diet, and I'm able to do that here."

But a lack of funding at all levels has put the Sikeston senior nutrition center in a very tight crunch. For instance homemade food has been replaced by prepackaged goods and contributed to a decline in daily attendance.

Sikeston Senior OAKS administrator YuVone Craig said many of the center's problems began earlier this year when budget constraints kicked in, and Craig had to start a waiting list for its Meals on Wheels program.

"We had been rearranging our budget and reevaluating routes," Craig said. Then came Craig's most dreaded fear -- cutting 40 homebound senior citizens from the program because of funding and increased cost of gas.

"There were a lot who were really upset," Craig recalled. "There was a woman in her early 60s who was recently diagnosed with cancer, and I had to turn her down. ... It was not an easy task -- I cried for three days."

Still the Meals on Wheels program serves 115 homebound Sikeston area seniors daily and about 60-65 seniors at the center for lunch.

"To me, the center is very important because it's not just delivering meals, we also check on the seniors when we visit them. And for some of them, we're the only human contact they may have each day," Craig said.

But Sikeston isn't alone. Similar situations are found at all centers in Southeast Missouri, Craig assured.

"We have noticed because of budget cuts and a freeze on Medicaid meals, it has caused financial problems because of the rising cost of food and gas, and it's really made it hard to operate," said Beverly Miller, administrator of the Charleston Senior OAKS Center.

Charleston serves about 100 homebound residents a day, and on average 45

-50 people eat in the center daily.

Lana Johnson, nutrition project director for the Southeast Missouri Agency on Aging, said a year-and-a-half ago the state advised its 10 Area Agencies on Aging -- which fund senior nutrition centers -- that the cuts would be coming, but in a slow process.

This year the Southeast Missouri Agency on Aging received $600,000 in state funding, but it must be divided up with the other centers in 18 counties. And some counties have more than one center, Craig pointed out.

"With Medicaid cuts, some seniors are choosing whether to get their medicine or eat. It's very hard for them," Craig said. "And some are able to buy medicine because they're eating here."

The state also funds federal money to the 10 agencies based on a state formula, Johnson said. Some of the formula's components include population, low income, minorities and is calculated by a point system. "We are the largest nutrition project in Missouri, and it doesn't matter," Johnson said.

In 2003, St. Louis and Kansas City combined served 1,364,747 meals compared to Southeast Missouri, which served 1,458,405 meals -- a difference of 93,658 meals.

"With the new census) the percentages for other areas went up and ours went down, and basically we got a 10 percent cut," Johnson said.

What's also made a big difference is that older people have gravitated to the Springfield/Branson area and more elderly are in St. Louis County and the Lake area, or central part of state, Johnson noted.

"If the state would change the formula, we'd be dancing in streets," Johnson said, adding that it isn't likely.

The rest of a center's budget is made up of donations.

"But you can only do so many fund-raisers because people get tired of it," Craig said. "People are bombarded by all kinds of organizations. They're strapped. We feel helpless."

Federal regulations won't allow centers to charge senior citizens so the Sikeston center requests a donation of $2.50 for those over 60, but people under 60 have to pay $4.50.

"Most who come here can pay a little contribution to the meal," Craig said. "And many of the homebound do pay on a regular basis. One lady can only pay 35 cents a meal, and she cries when she gives it (because she can't give more)."

Johnson said the centers have been looking to corporations for help and at using alternate meals. Earlier this month the Semo AAA piloted using frozen meals with its Meals on Wheels programs in New Madrid and Pemiscot counties and so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive, Johnson said, adding this may be something other centers will switch to in the future. Financial assistance isn't the only thing centers need -- volunteers are also in need, Craig said.

Now the younger seniors, those ages 60-65, are traveling and being active -- which is good -- but when the baby boomers get into their 80s and 90s, they need a place for to come and socialize, Craig said.

"Even volunteering once a month is even a big help," Craig said.

Meanwhile 91-year-old A.C. Thrower has been coming everyday to the Sikeston center since his wife died.

"I come here 'cause I need to eat and I need friends and I live alone," Thrower said. "I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have this."