Before the pandemic, there were an estimated 5.8 million hungry older adults nationwide and more than 9 million seniors living in isolation.
As social distancing requirements were put into place, these numbers increased exponentially. More older adults became confined to their homes and struggled with access to nourishing food and isolation from their neighbors, friends, and family members.
Suzanne Washington, CEO at Meals on Wheels People (MOWP), knows these issues well. Under her leadership, the organization prepares and distributes more than 29,000 meals per week—and more than 1.5 million meals annually—to nearly 5,200 older adults in Multnomah, Washington, and Clark counties. Due to an increased need, food production at MOWP has increased by an incredible 64% since March 2020. In addition to meal distribution, MOWP also addresses the pervasive issue of loneliness that plagues our older neighbors.
“The negative effects of social isolation have been equated to smoking roughly 15 cigarettes per day and have been traced back to an increased risk for chronic conditions, like dementia, strokes, and coronary artery disease,” said Washington. “When the pandemic hit, we had to adjust how we interacted with our older neighbors and find creative ways to reach them.”
Washington, who leads with a generous and innovative heart, has pioneered several groundbreaking programs, such as Friendly Chats and The Diner Vancouver, since taking the reins of the organization in 2014.
Washington spearheaded the launch of The Diner Vancouver, a donation-based restaurant that became an intergenerational community favorite in Clark County. The Diner provides a traditional menu, and a healthy option for Meals on Wheels People seniors to share a meal with their neighbors, serving as a place for connection and community, which helps many older adults feel less isolated.
While all home-delivered meals are tailored to be heart-healthy, MOWP took it a step further to become an accredited member of the Food Is Medicine Coalition (FIMC), serving medically tailored meals customized for people with congestive heart failure, diabetes, renal failure, or other conditions. Medically tailored meals help improve patient health outcomes, lower the overall cost of their care, and increase patient satisfaction.
Safe Homes for Seniors, a new MOWP program, expands home repair and maintenance services to the older adults it serves. Matching homebound seniors who need maintenance support around the home with handy volunteers, the program allows older adults to age in place with independence and ease.
“Our work does not come without challenges,” Washington said. “We depend on the generosity of donors and volunteers to keep our programs running. Especially, amid recent supply chain disruptions, the cost of food has doubled, even tripled in some cases, so we’ve had to be flexible in order to purchase quality food. We’re also experiencing staffing and volunteer shortages due to the ongoing pandemic. Our need to fundraise and recruit volunteers is at an all-time high.”