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For Seniors, a Fragile Safety Net

June 29, 2011


By Sally S. White
Executive Director, Iona Senior Services

 Like many in our community, I was stunned to learn recently from the DC Office on Aging (DCOA) that the vendor that for decades has provided meals for seniors throughout the city had declared bankruptcy and left nearly 1,400 older adults without the food they depend on. The news came without warning.  As word spread that Nutrition Inc. had closed its doors, Iona Senior Services began getting anxious calls from homebound seniors asking about their meals. Many had little or no food in their pantries.  

            Those of us who serve DC’s vulnerable seniors were shocked and dismayed, but only for a moment. Then we sprang into action,doing what we have done collectively for years: providing a safety net for seniors in our community who are too ill or disabled to shop and cook for themselves. 

            At Iona, we put the call out to friends and volunteers, asking them to deliver staples to our office. We needed 150 “emergency food kits” to accommodate the 120 older adults we serve. Within days, our community of volunteers more than doubled that number and our offices were overflowing with peanut butter and tuna, canned fruit and soup. Dozens of volunteers delivered the kits, much to the relief of our clients. We shared the extra food with four sister organizations —  Emmaus Services for the Aging in Shaw, Seabury Resources for Aging and East River Family Strengthening Collaborative in Northeast, and Access Housing in Southeast. At the same time, DC Central Kitchen stepped in on a moment’s notice, providing food to Iona’s group meal sites at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and at our Adult Day Health, Wellness and Arts Center.

            Now in its third week, the meal crisis is abating as DCOA smooths out short-term plans and evaluates long-term solutions. In the meantime, residents throughout the region have been asking how to help our community’s elders in the coming weeks and months. Additional donations of nutrition supplements—especially Ensure, Ensure Plus, Boost and Glucerna (for diabetes)—may be needed, along with financial contributions and volunteers. (For updates relating to the meal crisis and related news, contact Iona’s Meg Artley,  martley@iona.org.)

            If there’s one thing that this month’s crisis demonstrates, it is that the safety net is as fragile and vulnerable as the people we serve. But I am heartened by the recent outpouring of support.  Earlier this month, I heard a wonderful story about an aide to DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, who made a trip to a local grocery store to buy a supply of Ensure for homebound seniors who depend on the nutritional supplement. When the woman behind him at the checkout heard what he was doing, she gave up her place in line and went to fill her own cart and join the effort.   

Sally S. White (swhite@iona.org) is co-chair of the DC Senior Advisory Coalition, made up of more than 30 nonprofit organizations that advocate to improve the quality of life for and with DC’s older adults. Member organizations include AARP District of Columbia, Alzheimer’s Association National Capital Area, LeadingAge, Army Distaff Foundation/Knollwood, Barney Neighborhood House, Capitol Hill Village, Capitol Hospice, Catholic University School of Social Work, Chevy Chase at Home, Christian Community Group Homes, DC Central Kitchen, DC Coalition on Long Term Care, D.C. Hunger Solutions, Downtown Cluster’s Geriatric Day Care Center, Inc., Dupont Circle Village, East  River Family Strengthening Collaborative, Emmaus Services for the Aging, Family Matters, First Baptist Senior Center, Home Care Partners, Iona Senior Services, Kalorama Village, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, National Collaborative of Aging, GWU School of Medicine & Health Sciences, Northwest Neighbors Village, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Palisades Village, Seabury Resources for Aging, SOME, UDC Institute of Gerontology, Vida Senior Centers, Volunteers of America and We are Family.

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