Seniors throughout the county are "doing lunch," thanks to the Senior Nutrition Program, administered by the county Department of Aging.
The program, for people over age 60, is designed to reach isolatedseniors and bring them into a setting that fosters socialization anda sound diet. Studies have shown that seniors who live alone tend toestablish poor dietary habits, leading to poor health.
Each weekday, at 14 locations, seniors gather for a hot lunch, activities and socializing. For many, it is their only hot meal of the day and the only social contact. Four other nutritional sites operateonce a week, and one serves seniors twice a week.
"The socialization factor is extremely important. It's the only time they have the opportunity to sit down and eat with someone. Many of them are widows," said Ann Marie Remillard, director of the O'Malley Senior Center inOdenton.
On a typical day at O'Malley, seniors in the program enjoy lunch with friends, attend a class in calligraphy or health education, receive a blood screening and perhaps take home a cold boxed breakfast.
Katherine Marsh, described by the O'Malley staff as a loyal volunteer, is also a participant in the program. She gives the foodhigh ratings and testifies to the effectiveness of the program.
"It does help a lot," she said. "I'd be at home staring at four walls without it."
The program, funded through the federal Older Americans Act of 1965, began in Maryland in 1973. Today, it boasts an enrollment of about 1,800 in the county. At O'Malley alone, 127 seniors areserved regularly.
Although no one is turned away, participants are asked to contribute $2.37 for the cost of the meal. Volunteers, under the direction of site manager Shirley Grimm, set up, serve and clean up after the meal. Contributions pay for about 8 percent of the program.
"We're the most cost-effective program in the county," saidRemillard, who has only one part-time county worker on her staff forthe program.
"In order to make it work, we have our four regular day-in and day-out volunteers, and they make it happen," she said. "All I am is the conductor of a large symphony. I just wave my baton and everyone does their thing."
The senior volunteers seem to like the arrangement just fine.
"I enjoy doing it; otherwise, I wouldn'tbe here," said Katherine Marsh, a volunteer for more than three years. "You just get the satisfaction of helping."
Remillard says she hopes to resuscitate an early evening nutritional program derailed bybudget cuts. The program, Remillard says, would serve working seniors who usually return from their jobs to an empty house.
"I think that would be a terrific idea," she said. "I would love for that to happen someday."