Across-the-board sequestration cuts to federal programs have left the Meals on Wheels program unable to deliver meals to some area seniors, leaving them struggling to feed themselves.

Program administrators have responded to the budget reduction by creating a waiting list for seniors in need and reducing the number of visits to the people it does serve. When the sequester took effect on March 1, federal programs were forced to cut $85 billion from their annual budgets.

Meals on Wheels is one of several programs funded under the Older Americans Act, which was included in the sequester cuts, according to Debra Silva, a vice president at Spectrum Generations, central Maine’s agency on aging.

Cuts to the Older Americans Act have a disproportionate effect in Maine, which in 2010 had the third-highest percentage of seniors in the nation, at 15.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Silva said Spectrum lost $106,000, or 5 percent, of its budget because of sequestration. Because the cuts were retroactive to the beginning of the year, she said, the actual effect is 9 percent of the program’s services.

In response, Spectrum has reduced its offerings, which include community dining at Waterville’s Muskie Center and support services for family caregivers. It also provides educational outreach on health insurance, heating costs and fraud. Wellness classes, which teach seniors things such as how to manage chronic diseases, also are being reduced.

The loss of services has been apparent in the Meals on Wheels program. For the past 40 years, the program has delivered meals to seniors in need twice a week. Each volunteer visit includes a hot meal and one or two frozen meals, so that a senior winds up with five meals per week. The Muskie Center delivers about 200 meals a day to seniors.

In her 16 years at the Muskie Center, Silva said, the Meals on Wheels program never has had to turn people away because it couldn’t afford to feed them.

All that changed March 1, when the program began putting seniors on a waiting list for services.

The change came at a bad time for Marie Rouleau, 84, a Waterville resident who said she has a hard time feeding herself, now that her neck is broken.

“I live alone,” said Rouleau, who has never married. “I don’t have any family.”

Despite the soft neck brace that she wears, her body still moves well. She can get up and get around without any problems, but the slightest movement hurts. While she was speaking from a chair in her home on Patricia Terrace, with her 6-year-old cocker spaniel snoring loudly in the corner, she often raised her hand to her neck, trying to alleviate the pain.

Rouleau always has been an independent, active woman.

In her younger days, she played guitar and yodeled in a country western band at the local granges and the Waterville Opera House.

When she was 19, her family bought property on Messalonskee Lake. She remembers long hours of pounding nails and sawing wood as she and her father built a cottage there. For 27 years, she worked at the C.F. Hathaway shirt factory, where she prided herself on learning how to fix the machines.

“We had a mechanic, and every time he came in to fix something, I would peek over his shoulder,” she said.

Over the years, she focused her energies on activities including ice skating, roller skating or candle-pin bowling, and on work.

“I was always working,” she said. “They’d call me a workaholic. I’d rather work than go out on a date.”

As she’s aged, her social life has slowed. She said it wasn’t that long ago that she still went out weekly with a group of friends to play cards or to eat, but they have all died in recent years.

She said when her neck broke during a traction treatment for an injury she suffered during a fall, she lost the ability to drive, because she can no longer turn her head to the side.

Her doctors tell her that the neck will never heal, she said.

Rouleau’s longevity, and her lack of mobility, have isolated her.

Care workers do come to her house regularly, and take her to the grocery store once a week, but mostly she sits, watching a steady diet of news programs, the TV western Bonanza, and game shows on her television.

Even watching TV hurts, she said, if she can’t get the angle of the chair just right.

She has a hard time keeping herself occupied. An active person, she’s not much for needlework or knitting.

“I just never had a knack for dainty work,” she said.

Despite her independent nature, Rouleau isn’t a stranger to Meals on Wheels. She’s used the service twice in the past, each time for a couple of months to get through a recuperative period following surgery. She knows how to cook for herself.

“I used to have a good meal,” she said. “Baked potato or mashed, a steak, maybe a chicken with some stuffing. I’d make a pie once in a while.”

Now the neck injury limits what she can do. She no longer can lift a heavy roast or a chicken out of the low oven, or wash and cut vegetables.

Lately, she said, “I’ve been living on sandwiches and TV dinners. I eat a lot of soup.”

The time to accept the help from Meals on Wheels had come again, Rouleau decided in early March.

However, when she called, she said, she learned that the program had stopped accepting new clients just a few days earlier. She became one of the first people in the area to be put on a waiting list that has grown to 25 people in just a few weeks.

Now, she said, she misses the food she used to be able to eat, particularly the vegetables.

“I don’t think I’m getting the nutrition,” she said.

Silva said Rouleau is an example of a new group of seniors throughout the area who are finding themselves in need, both of the nutrition and of the human contact that a twice-weekly visit from a Meals on Wheels volunteer brings into the home.

“We have to stop adding more meals, because we don’t have enough money,” Silva said.

Even those seniors who continue to receive the service will feel the pinch, she said, because beginning April 1, the service is scaling back from two visits per week to just one, in which the volunteer will deliver one hot meal and four frozen ones.

Silva said the change will save money because the program reimburses volunteers for their mileage costs. Still, she said, for many homebound seniors, the volunteer visit amounts to a safety check that is as important as the food being delivered.

“It’s hard for us to have to give up one of those visits,” she said. “We understand we have no choice, so we’re trying to do the best we can,” Silva said.

The ironic thing, Silva said, is that cutting these services actually costs taxpayers more money in the long term, because a tax dollar spent providing support services to someone at home can prevent having to spend many tax dollars on providing full-time care to the same person in a nursing home or an assisted-living facility.

“Our services let people age in their homes,” she said. “It helps keep them in their home longer and costs far less than sending them to the emergency room or an assisted-living facility.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com