Interview with Valerie DiBenedetto, Fort Collins Meals on Wheels
In this interview, Valerie DiBenedetto, Fort Collins Meals on Wheels Executive Director for almost five years, discusses Larimer County seniors’ nutrition and social needs. Ms. DiBenedetto, who has a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies and a master’s degree in gerontology, also addresses ways of meeting these needs—both now and in the future.
Fort Collins Meals on Wheels provides home-delivered meals, social contact, and a well-being check on each delivery day to homebound residents in the Fort Collins area; meals are delivered five days a week. Larimer County residents are eligible to receive the meals if they are homebound and unable to prepare nutritious meals for themselves, and therefore have a deficient diet.
In terms of your area of service, what would you say are the most critical needs of seniors in our community?
I believe that in the area of meeting nutritional needs of homebound seniors, there is possibly the need for seniors to have weekend home-delivered meal options. It is always a question we are asked, both by our recipients and the community at large. I also believe that a critical need is that a service, such as ours, must remain affordable to all who need it.
Of those needs (or others), are there aging issues for which there is little (or no) adequate means of support?
I truly believe that there is huge need in our community for more transportation options for our most frail elders. There are some of our elders who would still want to get out to activities if transportation could be more available and easier to use. It is difficult for an 85-year-old to be on Dial-A-Ride bus for two hours, as stops are made. I believe that more transportation, such as that offered by Senior Alternatives IN Transportation (SAINT), could help.
Do you have any examples of these "unmet needs" (e.g., a brief anecdote or story about an elderly person)?
I am very concerned that in the area of nutrition (i.e., daily delivered meals) that my clients may decrease the number of deliveries/a week to limit the cost—but they really need them all five days of the week. They will often not admit that decreasing their meals and/or completely stopping them is due to cost—they are too proud to tell us that.
What is your perception of how these needs now affect our community at large?
I hate to start off with “in these difficult economic times,” but the truth is that everyone is impacted when elders need more assistance to live independently. I believe that, on the whole, families are there to support their elders and will do whatever they can to help. But I recently had a family member who was paying for her father’s meals and had to stop because of her change in employment status; now her father struggles with the cost. We still have him on meals, but he struggles. We will do our best to continue meals, but that translates into our finding more funds to subsidize more than usual. Again, the need for weekend meals could become more important if the working adults caring for elders need to work additional jobs to make ends meet. We shall see.
What are your thoughts about the potential impact of seniors’ growing needs in five to ten years?
We all know about the “tsunami” of the baby boomers becoming elderly. When the largest number of baby boomers are between 75 and 85, I believe a service like ours will be most impacted. The first baby boomers will reach 75 in 2021. I hope the prediction that many baby boomers are healthier will translate into a later date that the number we will be serving will really “boom.” Right now, we serve about 150 meals a day—I expect that number will start increasing slowly over the next five to ten years but will approach 200 during that time period—at least.
What approaches/solutions have been tried in attempting to deal with these needs?
If/when the demands on our service increase, we will have to work closely with our partner, Poudre Valley Hospital (PVH), to see what their maximum will be for the number of meals they can prepare. If we reach their maximum, another vendor would need to be found. If the demand for weekend meals increases, and we, as an agency, decide to try to meet that need, we would have to look at PVH to provide these or another vendor, plus we would be looking at recruiting a whole new volunteer base for weekend volunteering.
Which approaches/solutions have succeeded, and why?
I do know that other Meals on Wheels programs have added frozen meals to their Friday deliveries or an additional “lunch.” I have also found some programs that provide breakfasts, delivered at the same time as the lunch meal—to be eaten the next morning.
Which approaches/solutions have failed, and why?
I have no knowledge of failed approaches. I hope to gain more information in this area in the future—if/when I start looking at different ideas.
What steps can the community take to help with solutions to current and potential unmet needs of the elderly?
I do believe that in working with seniors, the challenge is not in reaching the active, younger seniors, but in reaching the homebound, most elderly, most frail community members. We need to find a way to reach them, talk to them, find out their needs.
What steps can business leaders take to help?
Reaching these frail, very elderly people is something that needs to happen, and maybe the business community can be a “pipeline” of information giving and gathering, both to and from the older seniors they serve.
Do you have any other comments, observations, or key messages you wish to communicate to members of the public, government representatives and employees, and business leaders of Larimer County?
My heart is in making sure that the most elderly residents of our communities are able to live out their lives with dignity in the living situation that ensures their safety and optimal health. This living situation also has to ensure their quality of life. Preventing the isolation that causes depression is key. If our elders want to “age in place,” I want them to be able to do that. I believe that our community has what it takes to make this happen, now and into the future. Most important is the fact that we can’t do it without talking to those we are trying to help.