Photo by Tiffany Wong

Food Insecurity Disproportionately Impacts Seniors

As one ages, hunger has as much to do with mobility as money.

By Erin C.J. Robertson

Joan Dubrule said her “claim to fame” was decorating country clubs before she started her own interior design business. In the prime of her life, she also raised four children as a single mother.

These days, walking and standing has become difficult for 81-year-old Dubrule of Takoma Park, Md. She has arthritis and is unable to live as independently as she once did.

“Eating is a very hard thing to do when you get older because, for instance, I can’t carry my groceries up the hill,” Dubrule said. “I didn’t know how I was going to get my next meal, and I didn’t know if I could prepare it either because of my inability to stand for a long period of time.”

Dubrule has no pension and makes ends meet with her Social Security allotment—most of which is gobbled up by utilities and taxes. Living on Social Security alone is not enough to adequately subsist on, Dubrule said.

When her home taxes jumped one year, Dubrule said she was able to qualify for $148 each month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. When her taxes dipped the following year, Dubrule’s benefits were slashed to a $40 a month, she explained.

“It’s not very much money, the way groceries are now,” Dubrule said.

She uses the $40 to feed herself for breakfasts and on weekends. Those meals mostly consist of sandwiches and soups.

The food insecurity that seniors face is two-pronged — some are financially strapped and increasingly immobile with age.

Next to children, seniors are the most at risk for hunger, according to the Capital Area Food Bank. The recession has made matters worse, as the number of seniors at risk for food insecurity rose by 50 percent between 2007 and 2011.

“What’s been interesting is the increase in senior hunger and raising the awareness of senior hunger,” said Paula Reichel, D.C. director of the Capital Area Food Bank, in an interview with The Hungry DC reporter D’Ante Smith. “Children have schools where they attend, where they can receive services or after school enrichment centers. Seniors don’t have a natural gathering place, so a lot of times their hunger is more hidden.”

Like Dubrule, many food insecure seniors in the D.C. area are crippled by chronic illnesses and struggling with competing budget priorities, such as whether to pay for medical care, mortgage or rent, utilities, food, transportation or entertainment, according to the National Foundation to End Hunger.

Low-income seniors who live alone are left vulnerable and susceptible to poor nutrition, frequent hospitalization and possible assisted-living placements.

Katherine Yowell, 81, is an outspoken advocate for Meals on Wheels, having spoken in front of Congress in support of the program. Photo by Tiffany Wong.

Katherine Yowell, 81, is an outspoken advocate for Meals on Wheels, having spoken in front of Congress in support of the program. Photo by Tiffany Wong.

‘Not a good feeling to…be hungry’

Some seniors seek help from Meals on Wheels, a national organization encompassing local nutrition programs that deliver meals to homebound seniors.

Katherine Yowell, 81, of Hyattsville, Md., was allowed to return home by her doctor after a major operation nearly left her paralyzed but with one pre-condition — she had to receive meal assistance. She turned to Meals on Wheels.

For Dubrule, who has lived in her home for 55 years, the two subsidized meals she receives from the group, one hot and one cold, Monday through Friday, have been a saving grace.

“It’s good for people that can’t really fix their meals, and also it’s a very inexpensive way to eat,” Dubrule said. She would have to sell her house if she did not receive the assistance, she said.

“It’s not a very good feeling to feel like you have to be hungry, especially at my age,” Dubrule said. “That shouldn’t happen in the United States ’cause I’ve worked all my life … so I want some help. My entitlements keep me in my home.”

Other seniors turn to more extreme cost-cutting measures.

Jill Feasley, director of the Meals on Wheels at Takoma Park, said she made deliveries this winter to a client in his 80s living in his car.

“He feels that it is cheaper to heat his car than to heat his house,” Feasley said. “And it’s difficult because I do feel like this person is competent and able to make his own bad decisions, and we have to respect that.”

Local organizations drive to alleviate senior hunger

Meals on Wheels is buoyed by volunteers who spare their lunch hour to deliver meals, typically consisting of a protein, vegetable and grain, to homebound and low-income seniors.

Senior Services of Alexandria is one of the few Meals on Wheels operations that delivers two meals for a cost of $10 a day, seven days a week, including holidays.

“With the seniors that we see, it’s the physical limitation that creates a hunger problem,” said Mary Lee Anderson, executive director of Senior Services of Alexandria. “It may not be because they don’t have funds. It’s because they physically are unable to … do their shopping on a regular basis.”

Betty Fredericks of Silver Spring, Md., a petite woman in her 70s, has volunteered and delivered meals for almost 30 years with the Takoma Park Meals on Wheels branch.

Fredericks said she has encountered worrisome situations during some home visits. For instance, she has seen seniors who have fallen and needed help immediately and seniors who have stopped eating, allowing their meals to pile up in their refrigerator.

 Karen Garbick, a volunteer for Meals on Wheels' Takoma Park branch, hands Joan Dubrule, 81, her hot lunch to be eaten immediately and a cold lunch for dinner with snacks. Photo by Tiffany Wong.

Karen Garbick, a volunteer for Meals on Wheels’ Takoma Park branch, hands Joan Dubrule, 81, her hot lunch to be eaten immediately and a cold lunch for dinner with snacks. Photo by Tiffany Wong.

Jill Feasley offers a sensitivity training to students who are first time volunteers. She gives them Vaseline-smeared glasses that simulate poor vision and gloves that have wooden sticks placed in the fingers to imitate arthritis. Then she asks the students to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The task is often quite difficult for them. They could barely make a sandwich, let alone pull the jelly down from the cabinet or wipe it up if it spills on the counter, Feasley said. Her exercise is designed to give student volunteers real insight on the struggles seniors face when preparing the simplest of meals.

To be fair, not all seniors have difficulty getting around, Feasley pointed out. One of her volunteers is 95-years-old and still drives herself to clients’ homes.

“She is older than every single person she delivers to,” Feasley said.

When food hurts more than helps

Seniors are particularly hit hard in D.C. Wards 7 and 8, the two poorest areas of the city.

For low-income seniors who rely on federally-funded programs for food, having access to nutritious meals is a very real challenge, according to John Gleason, Director of Senior Services at So Others Might Eat (SOME) and Brother of the Holy Cross Order.

SOME serves the population living in Wards 7 and 8, areas that are 95 percent and 94 percent African-American, respectively. The non-profit picks up and delivers food items, mostly supplied by the government, provides seniors on fixed-incomes with lunch Monday through Friday and writes grants to purchase fresh produce and other nutritious foods.

The number of seniors receiving food deliveries from SOME once a month has increased considerably over past the six years, ballooning from 17 to 120 households, according to Gleason.

“Some people are subsisting on SSI, Supplemental Security Income, which is only $711 a month,” Gleason said. “Try to imagine rent and everything else on that.”

For some seniors, making as little as a few dollars over the limit can disqualify them from SNAP benefit eligibility, Gleason explained.

‘I didn’t know how I was going to get my next meal, and I didn’t know if I could prepare it either because of my inability to stand for a long period of time.’

— Joan Dubrule

A growing number of grandparents and even great-grandparents have live-in grandchildren they are trying to support on a limited income, noted Gleason.

“I look at these people who have suffered, many of them very real discrimination just because of their race, who have struggled to raise families on modest incomes and have done it well, who have gone through a great deal in their lives, and here they are in the downside of their life. The struggle continues,” Gleason said. “For many of them, there’s no resignation, but there’s hope that they have still. And it’s quite humbling.”

Health conditions of seniors, such as hypertension and diabetes, are often exacerbated by the government-supplemented food they receive, which typically consists of two bags of canned goods, which are often high in sodium content, as well as dried milk powder or evaporated milk, a block of cheese and egg noodles.

It does not help that Wards 7 and 8 are “food deserts.” There are only two grocery stores in the area, according to Gleason.

“As people age, especially low-income people, they wind up going to mom and pop stores if they can go, or they pay somebody to go to the store for them,” Gleason said. “And those stores, of course, they cost more, so now they’re caught in that cycle.”

As seniors become less healthy, they increasingly become isolated, depressed and dependent on others, Gleason said.

His work is wearying and emotionally exhausting at times, but seeing the struggle and steadfast hopefulness of his clients propels him forward, Gleason said.

“What compels me, quite candidly, is the inequality that exists. I believe we can all do better than what we have presently.There is enough for everybody. We are our brother and sister’s keeper,” Gleason said. “The food is part of the whole picture.”

Seniors Face Food Insecurity from TheHungryDC on Vimeo.