Making their voices heard: Older adults use ‘lobby day’ to urge pols for more support of home, community-based services

Rick Dunderdale arrives at one of the clients on his list to delivery a meal to in Holyoke for WestMass ElderCare. “The meal is a foot in the door, and then we can check on them,” explained Dunderdale.

Rick Dunderdale arrives at one of the clients on his list to delivery a meal to in Holyoke for WestMass ElderCare. “The meal is a foot in the door, and then we can check on them,” explained Dunderdale. STAFF PHOTOs/CAROL LOLLIS

Dunderdale drops a meal off to Mary Deschenes at her home in Holyoke on Monday, where the two chat about her latest eye surgery. “It’s nice to see a friendly face,” she says.

Dunderdale drops a meal off to Mary Deschenes at her home in Holyoke on Monday, where the two chat about her latest eye surgery. “It’s nice to see a friendly face,” she says.

Rick Dunderdale, who delivers meals on wheels for WestMass ElderCare, drops off Therese Purcell’s meal at her home in Holyoke. She waits for his delivery in the morning before going out to meet friends for coffee.

Rick Dunderdale, who delivers meals on wheels for WestMass ElderCare, drops off Therese Purcell’s meal at her home in Holyoke. She waits for his delivery in the morning before going out to meet friends for coffee. STAFF PHOTOs/CAROL LOLLIS

Dunderdale makes his way to one of his  clients in Holyoke.

Dunderdale makes his way to one of his clients in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Rick Dunderdale, who delivers meals on wheels for WestMass ElderCare, drops a meal off to  Mary Deschenes at her home in Holyoke on Monday. The two talk about her latest eye surgery and Deschenes explains what a comfort it is to have Dunderdale check on her in the mornings. “It’s nice to see a friendly face,” says Deschenes.

Rick Dunderdale, who delivers meals on wheels for WestMass ElderCare, drops a meal off to Mary Deschenes at her home in Holyoke on Monday. The two talk about her latest eye surgery and Deschenes explains what a comfort it is to have Dunderdale check on her in the mornings. “It’s nice to see a friendly face,” says Deschenes. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 03-04-2024 9:40 PM

HOLYOKE — Mary Deschenes broke into a smile as soon as she opened the front door of her Holyoke home Monday morning and saw Rick Dunderdale there to deliver her lunch for the day.

“It’s nice to see a friendly face,” said Deschenes, 78, who began having meals delivered after suffering a fall. “It’s very comforting, and we’ve got to help our neighbors.”

Dianne Kelliher, another Holyoker on Dunderdale’s route, agreed. “I look forward to seeing my little buddy,” she said.

The stops were two of many for Dunderdale that morning as part of his work with WestMass ElderCare, a Holyoke-based nonprofit that serves older residents, persons with disabilities and family caregivers. The meals are part of the Massachusetts Senior Nutrition Program, more commonly known as “meals on wheels,” and the lunch for this day consisted of breaded chicken with sweet and sour sauce, served with sides of vegetables and white bread, with other options available for certain dietary restrictions.

Support for this program and many other home and community-based services offered by WestMass ElderCare and other nonprofits statewide are crucial in helping seniors stay in their homes as they age. That’s why leaders of these organizations took part in a full-court press of sorts on Beacon Hill last week, using a special “Lobby Day” that drew more than 500 people to push for increased funding for elder care programs in the coming fiscal year budget, including the nutrition program for which Dunderdale delivers.

Sponsored by Mass Home Care, an advocacy organization that represents all 27 of the state’s designated aging service access points, or ASAPs, the Lobby Day event also gave advocates a chance to promote legislation that would expand other services such as senior housing and mental health care.

“People want to age in their community of choice,” Betsey Crimmins, executive director of Mass Home Care, said in a statement. “Our network helps to make that happen, which produces better health outcomes.”

Such programs are provided to seniors across the state from ASAPs like Highland Valley Elder Services in Florence, LifePath in Greenfield and WestMass ElderCare, the latter of which serves Holyoke and nearby towns Granby, South Hadley, and Belchertown. Funding for the ASAP programs comes from state contracts and grants via the Executive Office of Elder Affairs (EOEA).

Older populations

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Senior care services like the nutrition program have had to face rising costs associated with an increasingly aging population.

In Massachusetts, the median age climbed to more than 40 years old, with 18% of the population age 65 and above, according to U.S. census data. In the western half of the state, which tends to be more rural, the numbers are generally higher, with senior residents making up 19% and 24% of the population of Hampshire and Franklin counties, respectively.

“The aging population, particularly in some of the smaller rural communities, is really outpacing the younger people,” said Roseann Martoccia, the executive director of WestMass ElderCare, in an interview. “In those rural areas and outlying areas, it’s even harder to get services out of people’s homes.”

The rural gap affects other senior services as well. The Elder Mental Health Outreach Team program, launched by several ASAPs, still does not cover a significant portion of the state outside of major cities, including many Hampshire County towns such as Chesterfield, Williamsburg and Goshen.

“The needs of older adults and the caregivers that are taking care of them are growing,” Martoccia said. “Certainly, the last few years have impacted the workforce across the board, in the community and in health care and in nursing homes.”

According to a release put out by Mass Home Care, the group is advocating to tack on an additional $11.8 million in the coming 2025 fiscal year state budget, including $3 million for the senior nutrition program. The release notes that in addition to an increasingly older population, the cost of groceries and food vendors have also gone up over the past few years, making it more expensive to prepare the meals for delivery.

“The increase in food costs has led to an increase, in some cases up to 10% to 20%, in catering vendor costs which the ASAPs must absorb,” the release states. “Our ASAPs routinely need to rely on fundraising to cover the shortfall in funding for this crucial program.”

More than a driver

Dunderdale realizes that his role encompasses more than just a delivery driver. On more than one occasion, he’s found seniors on the floor, some having been there for days.

“I had one guy who I had to call the ambulance for after he had been on the floor for four to five days,” Dunderdale said. “Delivering meals is the reason you’re there, and it’s also giving them contact with the outside world.”

Mass Home Care is also calling for 20 additional sites for elder supportive housing, or affordable housing with on-site coordinators for senior residents. Currently, there are 61 such sites across the state but none in Hampshire County, with the closest locations being Elm Terrace in Greenfield and Oxford Place in West Springfield.

“Elder supportive housing provides critically important services and supports to low-income older adults at a time when our state is facing a severe affordable housing shortage, and this program is a necessary component when addressing chronic homelessness among older adults in the Commonwealth,” Mass Home Care’s statement reads.

One bill the organization supports is sponsored by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, which would allow spouses to serve as paid caregivers. The bill would also include spouses within the definition of family member for home and community-based services, something that is not currently offered.

“We see, particularly with those who have a spouse with dementia, they can’t find care or find enough care to come into their home,” Martoccia said of the proposed bill. “Dementia and other such conditions present many challenges with an emotional, financial and physical demand. So if a spouse can be paid, they’re not doing this for a career or for the long term, they’re doing this to support their loved one.”

In testimony given last year to the Joint Committee on Children, Families and People with Disabilities, Comerford said the bill would not only provide support for spouses, but also address shortages in caregivers that the state is currently experiencing.

“There is a severe shortage of personal care attendants caring for MassHealth members with disabilities. The governor has called it a ‘crisis-level’ shortage,” Comerford said.

“Allowing qualified spouses to serve family members will provide a pool of caregivers that will reduce the waitlist and allow more people to get the care they need to stay at home.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.