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While Chadron and Dawes County are isolated from many of the problems seen in more populated areas, one challenge the region hasn’t escaped is an elderly population that often is without appropriate nutrition.

Often, that’s because the senior population has to choose between medical bills or utilities and healthy food.

The circumstances in which senior citizens find themselves making difficult choices vary widely.

“There are seniors who have assets they can’t sell,” said RSVP Director Rachel Johnson, such as a farm that is owned by the parents and operated by their children with no good way for an intergenerational transfer. Others have incomes just above qualifying guidelines for food assistance, but medical costs overwhelm the budget, leaving little funding left for proper nutrition, even through Meals on Wheels or at the Senior Citizens Center.

“A lot of the public doesn’t realize there is a cost to Meals on Wheels,” Johnson said.

Price increases at the Senior Center have also made it more difficult for seniors on fixed incomes. The Meals on Wheels program has seen a 40 percent drop in utilization in the last year, and on-site dining at the Senior Center has also declined.

The two programs also provide a vital social network for the elderly population, as Meals on Wheels drivers or Senior Center staff and visitors may be the only people a senior citizen has contact with daily or weekly. Staff can identify elder abuse or health issues and notify family or take other appropriate steps.

“It’s a safety net,” Johnson said.

A Meals on Wheels driver recently was able to check on a client who had taken ill, said Sheila Motz of the Senior Center.

“We might not have known she was sick and in bed if we weren’t there,” Motz explained.

A lack of proper nutrition can drastically affect physical and mental health, impacting how long individuals can stay on their own in their homes, Johnson added. “But financing is one of the challenges. There is a real gap in the finances.”

That’s where Feed a Hungry Senior comes in. Structured under the 60 Plus Club, the organization is beginning fundraising efforts to offset meal costs for seniors in need. Last spring, with the help of RSVP volunteers, the first Don’t Dump It, Donate It event was held as Chadron State College students moved home for the summer. The initiative encouraged students to donate the items they would normally leave behind or throw out to Feed a Hungry Senior, which then raised $1,200 from selling the items.

The group also was one of the non-profit beneficiaries of this year’s Cookout for a Cause and was nominated for the first-ever 100 Women Who Care About Chadron grant.

It costs $106 per month to feed one senior citizen in the Meals on Wheels program, however, so the group is searching for other grants and fundraising ideas. The group has also established a sponsorship program that allows individual in the community to sponsor a senior for up to one year.

Referrals for elderly individuals in need of assistance will be taken from the hospital, clinic, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Aging Office of Western Nebraska and relatives, neighbors and friends. The identify of seniors receiving funding through Feed a Hungry Senior will remain confidential.

Anyone interested in volunteering with or donating to Feed a Hungry Senior can contact Motz at the Chadron Senior Citizens Center.

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