Worries raised over cuts to senior services

State budget proposals would result in major problems, advocates say, and cost taxpayers more in the end.

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Those least able to sustain loss are being asked to give the most ... again.

That was the feeling at a gathering of local heads of agencies which serve the elderly and a contingent of senior citizens Wednesday.

The meeting, and similar ones around the state, was organized in response to the threat of losing more than $9 billion is services for seniors from the $31 billion state budget under proposed cuts from Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget, explained Mary Cleveland, program coordinator for the Walla Walla office of Aging & Long Term Care.

Such cuts will slice off big chunks of the services needed to keep seniors healthy and in their own homes, the group said. From perhaps being forced to go into a nursing home to becoming isolated from society, seniors expressed their fears at the press conference.

In-home care, Meals on Wheels, assistance in running errands and getting to appointments -- all of that could disappear or be a mere shadow of how things look today. And that picture, the group said, has already been darkened by budget cuts made in 2009 that affected the number of service hours to seniors.

It's tempting to not appreciate the magnitude of what seems like a simple budget cut, such as one daily dinner, said Howard Ostby. As director of the Senior Round Table, he oversees the Meals on Wheels program that runs from the Center at the Park. Through meals served in churches and community centers to hot meals taken door-to-door, Senior Round Table serves more than 60,000 meals a year in Walla Walla County alone, he said. Another 9,000 or so are served in Columbia County.

The program also feeds folks in Garfield and Asotin counties.

For program participants, those meals pack in one third of their daily nutrition requirements in a balanced grouping of freshly-prepared foods. About 60 percent of those using the program need the food delivered, which is accomplished by a "huge number of volunteers," Ostby said. And it's more than food being brought into the house, it's a few minutes of social interaction and a chance to observe the home situation.

Much of that will have to go away, if dire budget predictions come true, he told the group. "It will have a snowball effect. This is, by far, the biggest cut we've ever seen. We may have to cut as far as 24 percent of meals served."

Keeping seniors healthy with good food keeps them in their homes longer, reducing costs for the state, agency heads pointed out. "Nursing homes are a last resort," Cleveland said, adding that the area has few open skilled-nursing beds to offer.

At costs of about $6,500 a month per resident in such facilities, it takes far less from taxpayers' wallets to have state-paid services provided in the home. Senior Life Services NW provides home care to help people deal with daily living needs, said area supervisor Fay Smith.

The nonprofit agency charges the state $17.48 per hour to help seniors with the everyday tasks that become too hard to do alone as we age, Smith said. That might be bathing, house cleaning, driving places or shopping. Some seniors require 40 hours a week of assistance and others require much less, she said. One senior advocate summed up his own situation with a home aide -- " I have nerve damage in my back. I can't vacuum or mop, it just hurts me so. It would be impossible for me to survive ... three hours a week doesn't seem like a lot, but she gets a lot done."

As well, someone coming into the home on a regular basis provides stimulation and a reason to be social, Smith said.

That interaction can stave off loneliness and depression, which can be dangerous for seniors, the group agreed.

One real pitfall to proposed budget restrictions will come when seniors have to hire their own -- likely untrained and unscreened -- in-home help, Smith said, adding that a hidden cost of severe cuts will show up when many who now work for the agency lose their jobs and become dependent on state aid themselves.

The proposed budget cuts seem like the perfect example of being "penny wise and pound foolish," Ostby noted. "We'll end up spending more."

Yet there is no question the state is in a critical financial situation, Cleveland acknowledged. "Things need to happen ... no way can we not look at trying to increase revenue. There's not a lot of fat to trim. I don't think there are enough cuts we can make."

While senior citizens are not being singled out in the governor's budget plans, it's a population often without the means to be as effective as other groups, she added. "Per capita spending on seniors has been going down for years, the percentage spent on senior programs.

"Our clients aren't going to be picketing."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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