More than 11,500 older people across North Carolina have been put on waiting lists -- sometimes for months at a time -- for state help that can be life-saving.
And given projected shortfalls in state and federal funding for services such as Meals on Wheels and in-home aides, the waiting lists are more likely to grow than to shrink.
"There is certainly nothing to suggest that there will be a decline in the need for these services," said Dennis Streets, director of the state Division of Aging and Adult Services. At the same time, costs for the programs, including food and fuel, are going up.
Raleigh resident Georgia Gullie, 68, is one of 225 people in Wake County on a waiting list for Meals on Wheels. Gullie has difficulty getting around because of a hip replacement, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
"I'm pushing myself when I have to go out," Gullie said Friday from her senior apartment complex in North Raleigh. "My legs just feel heavy and weak."
Boosting state contributions to services for people such as Gullie is among the priorities that advocates for older people are pressing at the General Assembly this session. Advocates had asked for as much as an additional $7 million for the block grant programs, a $60 million combination of federal, state and local dollars that fund community programs. A House subcommittee this week instead recommended a $2 million increase.
"There's a growing gap between what the block grant funds pay for and what the needs require," said Alan Winstead, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Wake County.
The block grants support services for older people that include adult day care, home improvement and repair, senior companions, respite care, mental health counseling, health promotion and disease prevention.
Programs funded through these grants are designed to meet a variety of needs so that people can live independently in their homes as long as possible, instead of entering more costly residential care.
In the case of Meals on Wheels, the volunteer who delivers a hot, nutritious meal also may provide an older person with a rare link to the outside world.
"Anytime someone comes in, it's nice to see them," Gullie said. "All you can do is sit up here and watch television or doze off to sleep."
Meals on Wheels visits can sometimes become crucial to an older person's safety, Winstead said.
"There may have been a medical emergency where the participant had fallen and couldn't come to the door or get to the telephone," he said. "It absolutely can be life or death."
In the big picture of bills relating to older people, groups including AARP, Friends of Residents in Long Term Care and the Senior Tar Heel Legislature are competing for funding in a tight budget year.
"I think we need to do a better job of educating the General Assembly," said state Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, head of the House Committee on Aging.
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