Palmer lunch cancellation hard to swallow

Senior center attendees express concern

When Palmer Senior Center, a facility under the Mat-Su Senior Services, announced on Feb. 17 that its on-site lunch program would end Feb. 21, seniors expressed anger, sorrow and understanding on its Facebook page.

The center’s page disabled comments, so they weren’t visible, but people sharing the announcement posted plenty of their own reactions: “For most Alaska-bound seniors like myself, it’s about the only socially significant thing to do to get out of the house in winter,” wrote one. “I don’t qualify for Medicaid but that doesn’t mean I should be a shut-in in the winter and I can’t afford to go splurge on a poverty-level income. That makes the wintertime program very important at least.”

And there was this frustrated comment: “This is truly unacceptable. Budgets should be cut elsewhere.”

A son commented: “When I would go in there with my mother there were up to 60 or more people there… It is a difficult program to operate, and keep funding, and much needed. I hope they find a way to revive the in-house meals program into their budget in the near future. Meals on Wheels, I am glad for many seniors, will continue.

Thank you for your best efforts for our beloved area seniors.”

But the reality of what the program means to seniors is outlined in the press release from Mat-Su Senior Service President Linda Combs.

“The decision to close our in-person congregate meal program was not an easy choice. As your Board, we understand its value firsthand. Likewise, we enjoy seeing one another to catch-up, share stories and fellowship together,” Combs said.

But the explosion in senior numbers and the lack of sufficient state funding are to blame, Combs wrote.

“Many are surprised to learn, Alaska has the fastest growing senior population per-capita of any state in the Union. A title Alaska earned in 2007 when we knocked off Nevada to take the lead,” Combs wrote. “Today, that lead has only grown. What does that mean in terms of growth in Mat-Su? In 2010, the senior population (those 60 and older) in the Mat-Su Borough stood at 11,353. Today, the population of seniors 60 and older has grown 105 percent and now stands at 23,224. In 2010, seniors constituted about 13 percent of the borough’s overall population. In 2022, one in five borough residents is now 60 or older.”

State funding has not kept up with that increase.

“Short significant adjustments in FY20 and FY21 (COVID-19 response), national funding for all states has seen only modest increases since 2012,” Combs wrote. “State funding complements federal receipts, but has been flat for many years.

Mat-Su’s share of both federal/state funding remains to be seen for future years, but is currently just below $650,000, which in turn is distributed between senior provider agencies in the area, according to Combs.

There is some good news from the Alaska Dept. of Health’s Division of Senior and Disabilities Services. According to acting director Tony Newman, Gov. Dunleavy’s 2024 budget includes a proposed increase in the community services funding, which includes seniors, to $1.49 million. If passed by the legislature, it would be available July 1, 2023.

Mat-Su Senior Services CEO Tim Pettit said they would “absolutely” reinstate on-site lunches if more money were obtained for the program.

Asked if they are conducting fundraisers, Pettit said, “We have lots of people doing lots of things.”

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