A group of seniors gathered in the meeting room at Scenic Regional Library in Sullivan Wednesday morning to learn about how stress in their lives may be affecting their nutrition and what they can do about it. Afterward, they headed over to Fricks Market to pick up lunch as part of the CHOICE Counts program offered by Aging Ahead, which operates senior centers in Washington, Union, St. Clair and Sullivan.
In the last year, nearly 650 seniors from across Franklin County have signed up for the program, which offers weekly meals from Fricks and monthly learning sessions related to aging.
Since then more than 1,330 meals have been served between the two locations, said Jean Sotomayor, Aging Ahead community programs specialist.
Administrators at the four area senior centers say they are excited to see how well the program has been received and how fast seniors from all over the area have taken to it.
Our initial goal and hope was to have 100 people signed up, so to have over 600 people using the program in less than a year is way beyond our expectations,” said Debbie Steagall, administrator of the Washington Senior Center.
Rita Boyle, administrator at the Sullivan Senior Center, agreed.
“It gives us the opportunity to reach a larger group that wouldn’t normally attend the centers, while making our agency and facilities known to those who had no idea we existed,” she said. “I’m fascinated by how well this program has been received, and continues to grow. It’s a wonderful program and Fricks has been so supportive and wonderful to work with. I can’t wait to see what the future holds!”
Aging Ahead created the CHOICE program five years ago as a way to reach more seniors than those who come to the local senior centers, said Steagall. By bringing programs and services to community locations, like libraries or the local market, where seniors naturally congregate, CHOICE provides them with information and resources to help them to live in their homes and communities for as long as possible.
CHOICE Counts launched last February at the Fricks Market in Union and last October in Sullivan as a way to provide seniors access to healthy meals and educate them on health topics related to their aging, but also to encourage them to get out and interact with others.
“Helping people with social isolation, getting them out by going to get their meal and going to the education session is a huge part of this program,” said Sotomayor, noting it can help alleviate the symptoms of loneliness and depression.
For some seniors, going out can be something they tend to shy away from, so they need that encouragement, Steagall noted. It may be hard for them physically or emotionally to leave the house, and winter is especially hard, between the cold temperatures and snow or ice.
For other seniors who are still working or just more active and regularly on the go, the CHOICE Counts program is a convenient way to access healthy meals and information on aging, said Cathy Christensen, administrator for the Union Senior Center.
The meals they can order through Fricks are designed to help increase their nutrient intake and thus assist them in remaining healthy and independent.
“Our intent is for participants to ‘Make Their Meal Count’ by selecting menu items from the five categories that make up a Title III-C Meal,” the CHOICE Counts website (www.makeyourmealcount.org) reads. “We are increasing choice and convenience.”
How the Program Works
CHOICE Counts meals are currently offered three days a week (Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays) at the Fricks in Union, and two days a week (Wednesdays and Fridays) at the Fricks in Sullivan, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
The cost is a $5 suggested donation per meal.
Only seniors who are age 60 and older are eligible to sign up. They can do that by stopping by any of the four Aging Ahead senior centers in Washington, Union, St. Clair or Sullivan, or they can go online to www.makeyourmealcount.org and click on the “Enroll Here” tab.
One of the goals of the program is helping seniors learn how to use a computer and the internet or just become more comfortable doing that, said Christensen, noting nearly all of the seniors who enrolled through the Union Senior Center have opted to have her help them either over the phone or in person.
In Sullivan, where the program has been more popular with nearly two-thirds of the enrolled seniors using the Sullivan locations, it’s the complete opposite, said Boyle.
“I have only helped maybe a half-dozen people sign up. Most are doing it by themselves online,” she said.
Seniors do need an email address to complete their enrollment, but if they don’t have one, the administrators at any of the four senior centers can help them set that up, said Christensen.
To place their lunch order, seniors can go online to makeyourmealcount.org and under the “Locations” tab, find the menu to make their selections. Or they can go to the CHOICE Counts kiosk or computer station at Fricks (in the lower cafe at the Union Fricks or near the deli counter at the Sullivan Fricks) and input their order. They will have to print off a receipt and take it to the deli counter to pick up their meal.
The menu options include selecting a “grab-and-go” meal that is already prepared, a “build your own” meal where they choose from a list of entrees and sides, or the monthly featured meal, which is often a seasonal or holiday special.
The monthly educational programs are offered at 10 a.m. every third Wednesday at the Fricks cafe in Union and every fourth Wednesday in the meeting room at the Scenic Regional Library in Sullivan. The topic and speaker is the same for both locations each month.
The programs are brief, usually just 20 to 30 minutes, and cover topics related to aging.
For February, the topic was emotional wellness, and Dee Coppeans of Heartland Hospice spoke about how stress can affect people’s nutrition and physical health.
The March topic will be on the benefits of fruits and vegetables, presented by Steagall and Tammy Searle. Dates are Wednesday, March 20, in Union and Wednesday, March 27, in Sullivan.
The April topic will be Your Voice Matters, a conversation about the challenges of aging and the services that Aging Ahead provides. Dates are April 17 in Union and April 24 in Sullivan.
“If there’s something they would like us to cover as far as education, contact one of senior centers to suggest it,” said Steagall.
People do not need to be enrolled in CHOICE Counts to attend the educational programs, but they will need to sign in at the event.
“They can sit in on a educational session just to see if they like it, or if someone wants to bring a friend, that’s OK too,” said Steagall. “But if they want lunch afterward, they do need to be enrolled in the program.”
People who enroll in CHOICE Counts are required to attend at least two educational programs a year.
So far the programs have drawn relatively modest numbers, usually a half-dozen or so people, said Boyle. But those who have attended are always appreciative and say they want to come back for more, she noted.
Looking ahead to the future of the CHOICE Counts program, Sotomayor said plans are to continue improving and growing.
“We are currently seeking improvements to the technology that we hope to roll out this year,” she said. “Streamlining the technology to better serve our participants is a major priority right now.
“This would help us toward our goal of expanding the program to offer more days at the current locations and hopefully develop the program at other sites in the future. We are always open to exploring new partnerships/opportunities to offer the program at our locations, to be able to show continued success.”