Call it the case of the barking dog that didn’t bark.
Remy Rueda was making a Meals On Wheels delivery to an elderly man and was expecting a noisy greeting from his dog. But, instead of barking his hello, the dog was silently staring out the window. Something was wrong.
Rueda gained entry into the home and discovered that the wheelchair-bound man had stopped breathing and turned blue. She summoned emergency help and the man survived.
Rueda says she has saved at least three lives over her years with Meals On Wheels, a nationwide program that provides in-home meals, primarily for persons over the age of 65.
“Meals On Wheels is one of the most important services we can provide to seniors,” Rueda told me during my visit to Keiki To Kupuna, a 5-year-old nonprofit based in Waipahu where she is its program director.
Meals On Wheels is not the only provider of meals for Hawaii residents who are unable to leave their homes or cook for themselves. Families, friends and numerous churches and nonprofit organizations feed the homebound as part of their mission. Those providers are critical to the long-term health of Hawaii’s fast-growing population of elderly residents – Meals On Wheels provides at most one meal a day for those who qualify for its services.
Nevertheless, Meals On Wheels is a critical part of Hawaii’s future as a senior population tsunami hits our shores. Hawaii leads the nation in percentage growth of residents over the age of 65.
Back in 1980, the percentage of Hawaii residents over 65 was only 7.9 percent. Members of the post-World War II Baby Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, were entering the work force in record numbers.
By 2016, the percentage of elderly in Hawaii had more than doubled, to 17.1 percent, and now is estimated at 17.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s about one in six residents.
The Census Bureau predicts that Hawaii residents over the age of 65 will increase to 22.6 percent (more than one in five) by 2030 and to 23.8 percent (nearly one in four) by 2045.
And they will be “more elderly” than they are now. Approximately half of Hawaii residents over 65 currently are between 65 and 74 years of age, and about 15.6 percent are 85 or older. By 2045, only about 38.4 percent will be 65 to 74 years old and 27.4 percent will at least 85, according to Census Bureau estimates.
These numbers are no surprise to those who minister to Hawaii’s elderly. They recognize that over the next three decades a smaller work force will have to support a larger population of elderly residents, and many of the older residents will be unable to afford private care or senior housing.
That’s why, as Rueda says, Meals On Wheels needs to play an important role in accommodating those of us who are, or soon will be, part of the tsunami. Yet, I’m told by government and nonprofit officials that Meals On Wheels funding in Hawaii has remained stagnant for at least the past 14 years. That is consistent with similar programs on the Mainland.
The name Meals On Wheels dates back to World War II when volunteers in the United Kingdom delivered meals to citizens under attack by German bombers. The program began to appear in the U.S. in the 1950s. Typically, it is supported by federal and state funds and administered at the county level.
On Oahu, most of the funding comes from the state, and to a lesser degree from the federal government. The funds are administered by the Elderly Affairs Division of the City and County of Honolulu Department of Community Services, which qualifies applicants to receive meals from one of four participating organizations.
In Fiscal Year 2018, Oahu received $2,793,867 in state and federal funding for Meals on Wheels, with about 73 percent coming from the state and 27 percent from Washington. Lanakila Pacific was the largest recipient ($1,785,351), followed by Hawaii Meals On Wheels ($862,216), Keiki To Kupuna ($126,311) and Palolo Chinese Home ($19,987).
That translates into hundreds of thousands of meals for thousands of elderly residents – impressive numbers. But, while some of the organizations supplement the government money with individual and corporate fundraising, the demand is exceeding the supply.
Brian Wada saw the growing need in Central and West Oahu when he founded Keiki To Kupuna in 2013, starting with about $5,000. A chef, he is also the owner of Kamaaina Catering and Tent Rentals in Waipahu, a 34-year-old business that began as a lunch wagon and now handles events such as weddings, funerals, baby luaus and ground breakings.
“Our mission is to nurture our community and invest to explore how to help our kupuna age in place,” the Farrington High School graduate told me. “Our primary goal is to increase the nutrient intake in their lives. Our secondary goal is to ease the burden of caregivers by providing their loved ones with home-delivered meals appropriate to their health needs.”
Keiki To Kupuna meals are prepared at Kamaaina Catering and, like all other providers, meet USDA dietary standards. The meals are frozen, and volunteers deliver them to the homes. Most kupuna receive five meals a week, and some receive seven. Special requests are honored, such as vegetarian menus and absence of pork.
Rueda said Keiki To Kupuna is committed to deliver 12,600 meals to about 75 elderly residents over nine months, from October 2018 through June 2019, an average of 1,400 a month. But the need is much larger. She estimates that West Oahu is home to more than 20,000 residents over the age of 65 and, as the U.S. Census shows, that number is growing rapidly. Elderly residents can wait months to be accepted into Meals On Wheels, due to lack of funding.
Rueda and her one part-time staffer, Travis Uyeda, operate Keiki To Kupuna out of a second-floor room on Pupuole Street in Waipahu. She has nine volunteers: seven delivery drivers and two who help to package the meals. She says her biggest need, in addition to more funding, is a vehicle to deliver meals in emergencies – volunteer drivers use their own vehicles.
Rueda has seen Meals On Wheels from a variety of perspectives. She held seven different positions at Lanakila Pacific and worked in the city’s Elderly Affairs Division before joining Keiki To Kupuna in September – she said she changed jobs in order to drastically reduce her daily commuting time.
She says Meals On Wheels serves another function as important as the daily meals. The volunteers become the eyes and ears of the community. They become friends with the meal recipients and notice signs of trouble. For example, the elderly resident perhaps has not bathed in several days or is wearing the same clothes, or even is showing signs of abuse.
Or, in Rueda’s experience, a barking dog that didn’t bark.