Meals on Wheels of Denton County has seen a 25% increase in the number of seniors who need home-delivered meals this year, according to Director Kristine Herrera. The program served roughly 1,000 seniors in Denton County last year, she said.
This program, much like many others in the area, has been around since long before the pandemic. Since March, its efforts have been expanded using funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
However, some of this CARES Act funding is set to run out by the end of the year, which has left local charity workers wondering whether they will have enough resources to continue delivering meals to the seniors who rely on them.
“Those seniors are homebound, so they don’t get out much anymore unless somebody takes them somewhere,” Herrera said.
The portion of funding from the federal stimulus bill earlier this year that counties have allocated has largely gone toward rent and utility assistance, homelessness prevention and small-business grants, among other programs.
This funding has been critical for charities that serve residents in Lewisville, Flower Mound and Highland Village as the areas have dealt with unemployment rates that are still nearly twice as high as those recorded immediately before the pandemic, Herrera said.
Other charities have painted a similar picture of the number of people requiring assistance heading into the holidays.
“It’s the greatest need that I’ve ever seen,” said Stephen Thomas, executive director of Salvation Army Lewisville, to Lewisville City Council members at their Dec. 7 meeting.
One group that has been affected disproportionately by the virus is seniors age 65 and older, a population that has been growing in recent years in the Lewisville area, federal data shows.
Growth in the area’s senior population has significantly outpaced that of younger age groups: 31% more adults age 65 and older are living in Lewisville, Flower Mound and Highland Village now than did in the five-year period ending in 2014.
These numbers from the government’s American Community Survey estimate that since 2014, more than 4,000 new senior adults have either aged into that bracket in the greater Lewisville area or have moved there.
This group is being affected in other unique ways as they seek assistance, advocates said. The pandemic has changed the nature of how local charities serve seniors, who are more likely to become hospitalized and more likely to die from COVID-19 than are most people in younger age groups.
Gilbert Montez, president and CEO of Christian Community Action in Lewisville, said his charity has had to suspend weekly fellowship meals for the 120 senior adults who use their grocery program.
“In a non-COVID environment, [the seniors we serve] come to CCA on Mondays [and] enjoy a time of fellowship with a short program and a noon meal,” Montez said. “Then, they are able to get their weekly groceries that same day.”
But since March, the Lewisville charity has had to recruit volunteers to deliver the weekly groceries and meals directly to seniors’ homes. To help make up for the loss of those social interactions, CCA volunteers have been writing notes and delivering activity books and small gifts to seniors around the holidays, Montez said.
The unique circumstances of the pandemic have also limited Meals on Wheels volunteers’ interactions with the seniors they serve, Herrera said.
Each week, the Meals on Wheels program used to drop off five hot meals to its homebound participants, which provided five separate opportunities for volunteers to spend quality time with clients. That has been cut down to one in-person drop-off of five frozen meals per week.
“We did it not for us, but for them, to limit the exposure that homebound seniors had to volunteers,” said Michelle McMahon, president of Span Inc., which administers the county’s Meals on Wheels program.
Herrera said program volunteers have tried to make up for this loss in face-to-face time by making weekly phone calls to homebound seniors, but this is no substitute for the regular in-person interactions.
“They’re already kind of lonely, but they were looking forward to the daily visits from the volunteers to bring them their meals,” Herrera said.
Although the federal government could renew support for these programs in the coming days, Herrera said the county’s Meals on Wheels program is exploring alternatives.
Program administrators are looking into potential grants and requesting donations to help fill the possible financial gap, Herrera said.
Without some form of additional funding, hundreds of current Meals on Wheels recipients could be left out of the deliveries, Herrera said.
“I’m not looking forward to it—I’m not—to [deciding] who is going to be able to stay on [the program],” Herrera said. “It’s going to be some tough decisions coming up. We’re trying to see what we can do.”