Chester Wright was methodically tap-tap-tapping his way along the front porch and down the three steps of his Jefferson home one recent morning to check for mail just as Tom Casey pulled up to make a special delivery.
Casey was bringing a hot meal to the former electrician who completely lost his eyesight in 2016 after a progressively worsening 15-year battle with glaucoma. Wright lives modestly and alone.
Hearing Casey’s voice, Wright turned his cane from the mailbox, angling across the yard to shake hands with the man who has helped deliver his meals for seven years.
“I’ve been to blind rehab twice, and I maneuver in the house, but it’s uphill,” Wright said. “Getting this meal is really up there; it's important for me. But this man, he’s my friend now. I know Tom's cellphone number by heart.”
Wright is among about 850 homebound seniors in Jefferson Parish who might not otherwise get a hot meal if the Council on Aging did not deliver one five days a week; an estimated 500 meals are delivered daily to shut-ins 60 or older in New Orleans.
"Most of these people are living by themselves, and the meal I bring is usually the only well-balanced nutrition they'll get that day," said Casey, who delivers for the Jefferson Council on Aging despite his own Parkinson’s disease diagnosis six years ago. “Sometimes, I know I’m the only person they’ll probably even see that day.”
It's too soon to know whether President Donald Trump's administration's announced desire to slash federal funding to the nation's social services network in the 2018 budget will harm such meal delivery programs, either through direct reductions or as a ripple effect of shifting costs to state and local governments.
It will be months before a divided Congress and the administration finalize a new budget that establishes future funding levels.
"That's all up in the air. We don't know what will happen," said New Orleans Council on Aging Executive Director Howard Rodgers III, noting that his agency already has several hundred residents who can't get into the program. "There hasn't been a significant increase in elderly funding in this state in close to 20 years."
About 1,425 residents in Orleans and Jefferson parishes are on waiting lists for home-delivered meals. Any aging, infirmed resident who cannot otherwise get a nutritious meal is eligible to request that the Council on Aging in their parish deliver one each weekday, but there's always more demand than supply.
"For some reason, too many people see aging as another person's problem, until they age," Rodgers said.
About 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day. It is the aging of baby boomers born during the post-war years of 1946 to 1964, sometimes called "the silver tsunami," that won't begin to taper off until 2024 and finish up by 2030.
"The need for services grows as baby boomers age," said Al Robichaux, executive director of the Jefferson Council on Aging. "Everyone has someone who is elderly ... and a society that doesn't take care of its young and its elderly has no future."
More than delivery
Casey began delivering meals a dozen years ago when he retired from Continental Airlines, and he was trained to be more than a delivery service.
Robichaux said meals should be put in a client's hands whenever possible so delivery personnel can make sure no one is in crisis.
Just this spring in the small southwest Louisiana community of Starks, a Council on Aging worker delivering a meal discovered an 83-year-old client tied to his bed, the victim of a home invasion many hours earlier.
And last year, Rodgers said, New Orleans Council on Aging meal delivery staff discovered three deaths, one the result of natural causes and the others a murder-suicide.
Casey hasn't encountered a situation that extreme, but he has found clients fallen and in need of emergency services. He once smelled smoke outside a client's locked home and called 911. Emergency responders kicked in the door to find her on the kitchen floor and a grease fire burning. Another time, Casey was bitten by a client's fired-up Chihuahua.
“You can sure walk up on some things," said Casey, who is himself 72. "But you’d be amazed at how much it means to some of them just to have somebody to talk to, for even a couple of minutes.”
A 2015 Brown University School of Public Health study measured "the loneliness factor" of 600 older Americans in eight cities. More than half of them lived alone; almost 15 percent reported having no one to call on for help. Of those, seniors who had meals delivered reported significantly less loneliness than those who did not.
"This continues to build the body of evidence that home-delivered meals provide more than nutrition and food-security," said lead researcher Kali Thomas.
Robichaux said the problem of elderly isolation worsened considerably after Hurricane Katrina, when many people were forced to relocate for work or their children's schooling. Too often, he said, they had to leave behind elderly parents either unwilling or physically unable to be uprooted.
Councils on aging provide a range of other benefits, from transportation to homemaker services, but nutrition is the largest service. In addition to delivered meals, they also serve "congregant meals" in senior centers each week so older, eligible residents able to come out for lunch have a community of peers with whom to break bread and socialize.
“Seniors are sometimes neglected and forgotten, like prisoners in their own homes,” said Liz Yager, director of development for the Jefferson Council on Aging. “We try to fill the gaps for as many of them as we can. Isolation is particularly hard on them."
The magic of a hot meal
Karen McGloutholin, 72, began getting home-delivered meals after her first major stroke four years ago and is now recovering from a second one.
"Honey, without this meal, I'd be out of luck," said McGloutholin, who was employed in an area candy factory and waited tables during her working life. “The food is fresh and tasty, and these people are kind and good to me. I especially love to see Tom (Casey) coming through the door.”
McGloutholin is determined to recover in her small apartment with her pets and her plants that soften the common area she shares with friends in adjacent apartment units. It is McGloutholin's community that helps her heal.
“I’m plowing back. I’m walking now. I’ve already had them take that wheelchair out of here,” she said, acknowledging that visits from home nurses, the delivery of oxygen and the magic of a hot meal all help keep her at home.
“I try and pay a little something for the meals they deliver,” she said. “I know it’s not much, but it reminds me of putting something in the offering plate.”
Care management and nutrition director Jeanne Tripoli said the clients in Jefferson donate an average of $6,500 monthly for the delivered and congregant meals.
Although the numbers fluctuate, the average age of seniors provided a meal is 82.
Casey has several clients in their late 90s; one can no longer speak, and a few are not mobile. But others are more fortunate, like Charles Barbier, who recently greeted Casey at the door to share a bit of small talk and collect his covered meal of spaghetti, meatballs and greens tucked into a plastic grocery bag with cold milk and juice, sliced bread and a cookie.
At 98, Barbier doesn't move as fast as he did during the years he worked along the Mississippi River. But he is still quick with a joke and relishes a little company on his front porch. “The food’s good, and this guy is OK," he said of Casey, who has been bringing Barbier meals since 2010.
Questions on funding
The money for councils on aging in Louisiana comes from a variety of local, state and federal sources, along with private donations, fundraising proceeds, corporate giving and nongovernmental grants.
The primary source of federal money for meals programs comes from the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program and is meted out by the state under a prescribed formula. Under Trump's 2018 budget wish list, it would be reduced overall by $3 million.
Additionally, the administration's budget priorities include elimination or substantial reduction in a number of other social programs, including Community Development Block Grants. The loss of those grant dollars would affect the operation of senior programs in some jurisdictions more than others.
In Jefferson Parish, for example, the Council on Aging routinely gets little to no block grant funding. Yet Rodgers said in New Orleans, where a dozen of the city's 15 senior centers get some block grant funds to help operate, a loss would be challenging, even though the block grants are a secondary funding source.
"But we just don't know enough to hit the emergency button now," he said. "We're watching closely, but we're not panicked. It hasn't hit the critical point."
Because the Jefferson and Orleans councils on aging operate on the state's July 1 to June 30 fiscal year framework, the federal money in their budgets for the first half of 2018 is already in place, basically at current levels.
"We have challenges confronting us, and I have concerns, but I'm not panicked," Robichaux said. "I'm on a crusade now to get more money from the parish and state by showing that we will continue to be good stewards of the money they give us."