Published in Woonsocket Call on March 22, 2015
In 2013, Dr. Kali Thomas, an assistant professor at Brown University’s Center for Gerontology and Healthcare Research, published a study that found home delivered meals can keep persons age 60 and older at home, allowing them to age in place. The study’s data also indicated that some states would experience cost savings if they expanded meals on wheels because that could delay a Medicaid recipient’s entry into costly nursing home care.
The “More Than a Meal” pilot research study, conducted by Thomas, was released on March 2, 2015 the Alexandria, Virginia-based Meals on Wheels America, the oldest and largest national group representing over 5,000 community-based senior nutrition programs. The gerontologist found benefits far beyond basic nutrition identified by her earlier 2013 study — health and psychological benefits, too, particularly for those seniors who live alone.
Details of Groundbreaking Research Study
Thomas, contracted by Meals on Wheels America with funding provided by AARP Foundation, designed and executed the 15-week pilot study, involving over 600 older participants, in eight sites around the country, including the Ocean State. Study participants either received personally delivered fresh meals daily, or weekly bulk deliveries of frozen meals, or just simply remained on a waiting list.
The Brown University researcher found those living alone who received meals showed statistically significant reductions in feelings of isolation, an effect that was greater if they received meals daily rather than weekly. They also felt significantly less lonely, were less worried about staying in their homes, and said they felt safer. Those also receiving meals experienced fewer falls and hospitalizations.
Thomas said that based on her personal experience as a driver for Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island and as the family member of a meals recipient (her 98-year old grandmother), she was not at all surprised to see the positive benefits she observed anecdotally emerge as significant in a rigorous research study.
Elle Hollander, President and CEO on Wheels America, notes that her members have “faced tough choices forced by limited funding, rising costs, unprecedented demand and need, and increasingly for-profit competition.” Hollander says, “We now have the research-backed evidence that confirms what we’ve all know for decades anecdotally through personal experience: that Meals on Wheels does in fact deliver so much more than just a meal.”
AARP State Director Kathleen Connell agrees. “It really has been no secret that home-delivered meals are a critical for the older population, as well as the disabled. With Kali Thomas’s earlier Brown data released in 2012 in our award-winning senior hunger documentary Hungry in the West End, the newest research reinforces what Thomas said in film: the nutritional benefits and relief from food preparation allows people to live in their homes longer and to stay healthier. And so, there are long term healthcare benefits as well as savings to the state if the investment in home-delivered meals delays someone’s transition from independence or home-based care into a Medicaid-supported nursing facility.”
A Call for More State Funding
Heather Amaral, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island agrees with the benefits of visiting volunteers to the recipients, but stressing that the volunteer benefits, too, from the bond that develops. “There are many studies that show volunteering is good for your health and spirit, she says.
Amaral expresses pride that Rhode Island was selected as one of eight pilot sites in the study. “This study proves what we’ve observed through the years—Meals on Wheels deliveries keeps people out of nursing homes and in their own homes longer,” she says.
According to Amaral, in 2014 Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island’s Home Delivered Meals program provided 316,524 meals to 2,298 individuals. Over the years she has seen federal funding remain stagnant, while state funding has declined. Last year’s budget allocated $200,000 to Meals on Wheels, down from $530,000 that was allocated by the General Assembly in 2006. But, Governor Raimondo’s submitted budget does reinstate $ 330,000 more in funding, if approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly, she says.
Clearly, Governor Gina Raimondo recognizes the importance of Meals on Wheels as she begins to reshape Rhode Island’s long-term care continuum. The Governor states, “Programs like Meals on Wheels are important investments. These programs are one of the strategies in our toolbox to keep people healthy and in their own homes. Particularly as we work to reinvent Medicaid to support better health outcomes and provide better value to taxpayers, we will continue to support programs like Meals on Wheels that help our most vulnerable seniors stay in their homes and in the community.”
The Rhode Island General Assembly must not be penny-wise and pound foolish. Support the Governor’s budget to ratchet up funding for Meals on Wheels. It is a sound policy move to put the breaks to spiraling Medicaid costs, by making the system more efficient and rooting out fraud and waste. We must balance the State’s limited budget funds to keep older Rhode Islanders at home as long as possible. But, if nursing home care is need, the Rhode Island General Assembly must allocate the necessary Medicaid funding to provide efficiently delivered quality of care.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.