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Aging in place

Free meals could help seniors avoid nursing homes

Can providing free meals to seniors in failing health prevent some of them from winding up in nursing homes? That was a thought experiment conducted by Brown University researchers in a paper published online earlier this week in the journal Health Services Research. The researchers found that with all things being equal, the amount of money a state spends on subsidized meals correlates with a reduction in the percentage of relatively healthy seniors in nursing homes.

The researchers examined state expenditure data for subsidized meal delivery programs such as Meals on Wheels and compared it with the percentage of “low-care” nursing home residents -- who don’t use most nursing home services or require much supervised care -- living in more than 16,000 nursing homes nationwide.

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What they found was that states that spent more per senior citizen (residents age 65 and over) on delivered meals had lower rates of low-care residents in their nursing homes. In Washington state, which spends just $8 on subsidized meals for every senior state resident, nearly 17 percent of the nursing home population is made up of those with minimal health needs. In Wyoming, which spends more than $82 per senior, the low-care population is under 14 percent.

Massachusetts spent $48 per senior in 2009, the latest year for which data is available.

“We adjusted for a number of characteristics that may have affected our results,” said study leader Kali Thomas, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown’s Center for Gerontology and Healthcare Research, taking into account how much states spend on Medicaid coverage for nursing homes or the type of care typically provided in each nursing home. Even so, Thomas added, “it’s not necessarily clear cut” that spending more on delivered meals will bring down nursing home admissions or lead to an overall cost savings for a state.

That said, many seniors prefer to age in their own homes. A variety of subsidized meals programs are available in Massachusetts for seniors, those with disabilities, and even breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or recovering from surgery. These include:

1. Meals on Wheels. Massachusetts has an extensive meal delivery program for seniors run by faith-based and elder-care organizations. The meals are low cost or free and are delivered daily. For a full listing of services available in every town, check out http://www.mealcall.org/meals-on-wheels/ma/index.htm.

2. Magnolia Meals at Home for breast cancer patients. Breast cancer patients recovering from recent surgery or going through chemotherapy can get free meals delivered to their home once a month -- seven meals for themselves or 17 meals for families. The meals are fresh-cooked and then frozen for easy storage and are available to all patients regardless of financial need. To enroll in Magnolia Meals at Home, patients can contact Jane Brown at 617-733-5848, toll-free 888-793-9355, or jane@cancersupportcommunity.org.

3. Minuteman Senior Services. This non-profit organization helps arrange Meals on Wheels but also runs dining sites that offer hot meals at senior centers and other sites throughout the area. A small donation is requested to cover the cost. Check out http://minutemansenior.org/mealsites.html.

4. Merrimack Valley Food Bank. Low-income elderly or disabled individuals in greater Lowell can sign up for the Mobile Pantry Program to get free deliveries of groceries at www.mvfb.org.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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