Vol. 17, No. 10 May 6 - 19, 2004


Meals Plan Jeopardizes a Lifeline for the Elderly


Every weekday for the last four years, 93-year-old Sophie Michael received a visit from a young woman delivering hot meals for her. But for many seniors who depend on the Meals on Wheels program, these frequent visits could soon end when the city's Department for the Aging makes some very questionable changes to the program.

The city plans to replace the daily delivery of hot meals to a single weekly drop-off of frozen meals to many seniors in the Bronx starting this July and eventually expanding the new program throughout the five boroughs.

Michael calls the daily visits "important for me particularly because I can only see out of one eye and I spend most of my time in bed. It is difficult for me to stand up and do the things I used to do."

Why would the city deprive frail, homebound seniors of the reassuring daily visits by delivery personnel? Cost savings is the response, but the city cannot provide evidence to justify the change. Based on what limited information is available, my office concludes that this switch could actually end up costing more, in part because many of the seniors in the program will need equipment like microwave ovens and freezers. Also, some of the delivery trucks will have to be refitted with freezer equipment.

But what if a senior can't operate a microwave? That question raises a genuine concern among seniors. "If I had to heat it up, it's difficult for me because I have to stand up," she said. "I am sure there are many in my predicament."

Even more problematic than the dubious cost savings is the city's refusal to consider the very real human cost of these changes. In addition to providing seniors with hot meals, the program also guarantees them regular face-to-face interaction with the men and women who deliver the food, who can easily determine if seniors are eating their meals each day. These men and women also often assist the seniors in securing the medical or social services they need. With the average age of seniors in the program at 82, the daily human contact this program guarantees is invaluable and can be life saving.

Yet the city has not provided adequate safeguards for the seniors who will be isolated by this change. Beyond a few telephone reassurance programs, which, ironically, add to the cost, seniors will have little support. The city has failed to address both the need for and the costs of developing these critical support systems, as well as the broader implications of these so-called reforms.

I urge the city to abandon this plan. People like Sophie Michael  -  who nurtured us and helped build our city  -  deserve far better than this shortsighted and misguided scheme.

William C. Thompson, Jr. is the New York City comptroller.

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