Budget cuts mean less meals for seniors

From left, Vickie Rodriguez and Helen DiStasio enjoy lunch at the Naugatuck Senior Center April 7. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

From left, Vickie Rodriguez and Helen DiStasio enjoy lunch at the Naugatuck Senior Center April 7. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — When Vickie Rodriguez was growing up, she cooked for a family of 10. Now, at 86, she finds it hard to cook for just one, so she usually heads down to the Naugatuck Senior Center for a meal and some company.

Rodriguez, like several others at the senior center, blames politicians for cuts to the senior cafe program.

“They best be careful,” said Betty McCabe after lunch last Friday. “They’ll be old one day and what goes around comes around.”

She pledged to vote against those that cut services to the poor, sick and old.

“Connecticut has a habit of doing that, putting everything on the back of the little people while the rich go around crying poverty,” she said. “There are people who come here … that otherwise can’t afford to eat. This may be the only meal they get a day.”

The Meals on Wheels Program administered by New Opportunities Inc. in Waterbury is cutting services in the face of budgetary woes.

Until now, seniors with little income or mobility could rely on the program to deliver hot meals straight to their doors or stop by a senior center for a bite with some company five days a week.

The program will no longer serve meals on Wednesdays at the Naugatuck Senior Center, Cheshire Senior Center, Clare Hall in Thomaston, the Hispanic Coalition in Waterbury or the Watertown Senior Center.

Lisa LaBonte, who directs New Opportunities’ Senior Nutrition Services, notified the local programs of the cuts in a memorandum last week.

The program is also cutting Meals on Wheels delivery on the first Wednesday of every month. Employees will be furloughed without pay that day, according to the memo.

Mary Kate Gill, director of elder services at New Opportunities, which administers Greater Waterbury’s Meals on Wheels program, said announced cuts in the federal Social Service Block Grants necessitated the cuts in services.

The Western Connecticut Area Agency on Aging recently informed New Opportunities that it will only get $911,500 for the senior nutrition program this year, $159,000 less than the $1.071 million it received last year. Last year, New Opportunities started out with a budget of $986,500, but the Western Connecticut Area Agency on Aging shifted unspent money from other regions to Greater Waterbury to make up a shortfall.

“We had hoped that funds would be maintained,” Gill said.

The agency has had a waiting list to sign up for the Meals on Wheels program that delivers meals to homebound seniors since December. Despite the list, the agency has served more meals than are budgeted, to about 350 people a day. Now, it will be cutting that service one Wednesday a month. About 400 customers who get meals through the state Department of Social Service’s Connecticut Homecare program won’t be affected, Gill said.

“We’re hopeful that some of this gap will be met, but we just don’t know when,” Gill said.

New Opportunities also runs nutrition programs in area towns, including Prospect, but they won’t be affected by the cut since they already serve lunch fewer than five days a week.

About $260,000 of the program’s budget come from donations from seniors who participate in the lunch program. While the suggested donation is $3, the average donation is $1.25, Gill said. The actual cost of the meals is about $7.

She said the organization also plans to raise about $30,000 a year in fundraising.

The agency also consolidated four part-time administrative positions down to two, combining the duties of a bookkeeper and data position, as well as a diet technician and cafe coordinator.

For many living alone, the Meals on Wheels delivery person is the only touch they have with the outside world to check on how they are doing, Naugatuck Senior Center Director Harvey Leon Frydman said.

“It’s almost heartbreaking because it’s people who really need that service, who want to stay in their own homes,” Frydman said.

Frydman said the Naugatuck Senior Center serves about 18 to 20 meals a day.

“It truly is more than just the nutritious meal. It’s socialization, being able to get out, meeting people, and feeling good,” he said.

Frydman said he and the seniors are disappointed by the cuts to the program, but are hopeful that New Opportunities will get further grant funding to continue serving the meals. He said the Naugatuck center will still offer coffee and complimentary refreshments on Wednesdays.

“There is hope [the funding] will be restored, but there isn’t anything we can do about it right now,” he said.

Luke Marshall contributed to this article.