Agency provides myriad services to assist older adults – Daily Inter Lake

The Flathead County Agency on Aging’s goal is pretty straightforward — to assist older adults with what’s important to them.

“The mission is to pay attention to older adults and their needs,” said Carla Dyment, director of the Agency on Aging. “I believe it’s important to respect and take care of our elders. There is especially work to be done for the most vulnerable older adults in our community.”

The ways in which the agency assists older adults, and their caregivers, however, is through an extensive network of programs and services, and information and resources.

According to Census data, 20% of Flathead County residents are age 65 years and older. By 2030, one in five Americans will be age 65 and older, according to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

The focus remains on the sustainability of the agency’s programs, such as its Meals on Wheels program, family caregiver support, benefits counseling, in-home services, advocacy for residents in assisted living and nursing homes, veterans directed care program and connecting older adults and their caregivers to community resources.

Dyment points out that the agency has a large niche of services it provides and it plans to continue to do so with the resources it has.

“Government funding is a strong foundation for all our programs, but as demand and need increase we will be looking into creative ways to build our resources,” she notes.

In March, the agency is set to participate in a statewide needs assessment that will include surveys and focus groups to assess how older adults’ needs are changing. Dyment says the survey will provide valuable information about how to continue to improve services, but that the agency also plans to keep serving a growing senior population by seeking creative solutions.

“As needs increase, we will continue to partner with other organizations, businesses, nonprofits, and churches, to team up, and combine forces,” she said. “We all have a role to play.”

THE AGENCY on Aging stems from the Older Americans Act passed by Congress in 1965 in response to concern about a lack of community social services for older persons. It established authority to states for community planning and social services. Though seniors may receive services under many different federal programs, today the act is considered a major vehicle for the delivery of services to this group and their caregivers.

In 1987, Montana passed its own version of the act to reaffirm the state’s commitment to its older citizens.

“The Legislature finds that older Montanans constitute a valuable resource of this state and that their competence, experience, and wisdom must be used more effectively for the benefit of all Montanans,” the act says.

There are 10 area agencies on aging throughout Montana serving various geographic locations. They operate as private nonprofits or as is the case in Flathead County as public agencies.

ONE OF the most recognized programs administered here by the agency is the Meals on Wheels program which provides homebound residents with a hot meal delivered by volunteers Monday through Friday. Frozen meals are also provided for the weekend.

The meals are distributed through delivery routes throughout the county. Through the program, about 6,300 meals were delivered during the month of January.

To be eligible for the program, a person must have a need for the service, meaning they can’t come to one of the dining rooms for lunch or shop and prepare meals for themselves, or have a caregiver who can routinely prepare meals for them.

The program relies heavily on a base of volunteer drivers who distribute meals. Each weekday about 200 meals are delivered to residents in Kalispell through the center, and meals set for the surrounding communities are distributed through senior and community centers in Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Bigfork and Lakeside.

Prior to lunchtime in Kalispell, volunteer drivers gather waiting to pick up the prepared meals before heading out on their routes. Some grab a cup of coffee and a doughnut and chat while they wait.

One volunteer David Taylor, who has been delivering meals more than a year ago after retiring, drives multiple days per week with his route taking about 45 minutes. In addition to providing a balanced meal for those who need it, drivers must check in with the folks on their route.

“You really get to know people — it’s fun,” Taylor said. “They are very thankful and you know you’re making their day. You’re not supposed to leave the meal without checking in on them.”

Also falling under the umbrella of the agency’s nutrition program are the congregate meals served at the Kalispell Senior Center. On average roughly 80 meals are served per day in the dining room at the center with January seeing about 2,000 meals served in total for the month.

For those age 60 and older meals at the center are by donation, but meals are open to any age diner. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

David Caron recently moved into the role of manager of the nutrition program after serving as the agency’s head chef. He’s spent two decades working as a chef serving older adults having previously worked in an assisted living facility.

“I like the comradery of serving older people, but also making sure that their nutritional needs are met,” he said. “We’d like to see even more people eating with us. We know we’re not reaching everyone.”

On a tour of the large kitchen facility designed for cooking 2,000 meals per week, Caron says the most popular meal on the menu is the beef pot roast.

“People are often surprised at how good the food is,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in the food. We want to make sure it’s something they will like to eat because it does us no good to provide them with a meal that they won’t eat.”

BEYOND THE Meals on Wheels program, volunteers also support the agency through other programs like grocery delivery, providing home help services, volunteering in the dining room and kitchen, and beyond.

Dyment says a growing senior population also means a growing number of potential volunteers.

“I see that as an opportunity that there are many people who are retired or going half- or quarter-time in their careers and want to volunteer,” she said. “We have several ways people can get involved giving their time or resources to support older adults.”

The volunteer program matches skills and interests with opportunities to assist, the agency says, thereby creating a partnership between volunteers, staff and clients to help older adults in the community.

A TEAM of resource specialists at the agency make up the center point of a hub of a number of other programs and resources. Many of the programs are aimed at helping people stay in their own homes, but the other focal point is also providing assistance navigating Medicare and other benefits and also providing counseling regarding long-term care. But they also assist with locating housing, referring for legal and tax assistance and assisting with transportation needs.

Sandy Licence, resource specialist, said there are programs that can provide assistance for anyone even those who think they might not qualify and often hears from people who didn’t know the agency existed.

“Our goal is to help people be as independent as they can be,” she said. “We want to help keep them in their homes as long as possible. But our goal is to keep them safe and happy and have their needs met.”

“People are often so grateful for the assistance,” she added. “We’d like more people to know we’re here.”

To keep people living in their own homes, programs include assistance for those who might need assistance with light housekeeping, grocery shopping or getting, and getting transportation such as to doctors appointments.

In terms of nursing and assisted living facilities, the agency provides an advocacy program that provides an ombudsman to help residents and their families navigate through the process. Often a resident comes to the agency with a problem and the ombudsman serves as a go-between to get issues resolved from both sides.

Caregiver support is another focus area for the agency. The agency often sees spouses caring for their significant other so the aim is to make sure that caregiver is taken care of too.

Programs include caregiver support groups and information regarding navigating care.

“A lot of our clients who are still in the home may be being cared for by a caregiver full time,” License said. “We can provide assistance with hiring a caregiver, or respite services so there’s a little rest for the caregiver.”

THE RESOURCE specialists often also refer individuals to outside programs as needed.

“We think of it as no dead end,” Dyment said. “If it’s not in our wheelhouse, we’re going to connect you to who it is. That’s part of our value is to make sure we’re connecting people to the services they need.”

Carla Reed, resource specialist, says the agency focuses on solving problems.

“They are often small problems, but to the client, it’s a big problem so that’s always a good feeling when we can find a solution,” Reed said. “But we do enjoy it when we get to really dig and have to work to find the answer — and then it’s really a good feeling to call to say we’ve fixed it.”

Some assistance doesn’t fall into any program, but is about connecting people with the things they need. When a nursing home was disposing of a hospital bed, the agency found movers to deliver the bed to a man with mobility issues who had been limited in what he was able to do but that all changed with the bed.

LOOKING TO the future, Dyment, who recently took over as director of the agency, says one of the areas where the agency will be exploring is in providing more intergenerational connections. “We need each other more than ever,” she said. “Isolation, depression, anxiety, are all things people are struggling with at every age. The more we can connect, learn from one another, enjoy life together, and lean on each other through life’s challenges, the stronger we will be.”

Features editor Heidi Desch can be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com

photo

One of the meals prepared for Meals on Wheels recipients includes a barbecue riblet, scalloped potatoes, mixed vegetables and a peach dump cake at the Kalispell Senior Center on Friday, Feb. 18. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

photo

Volunteer Dean Van De Hey places an insulated bag full of meals for Meals on Wheels recipients into his vehicle for delivery outside the Kalispell Senior Center on Friday, Feb. 18. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

photo

Robert Merrick scoops mixed vegetables for meals for Meals on Wheels recipients at the Kalispell Senior Center on Friday, Feb. 18. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)