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Senior programs stretched from cuts
Legacy Link grant funds Meals on Wheels, senior center and transportation
Ollie Bryson, left, and Ruby Smith get on a bus at the Senior Life Center Friday for a ride home. The bus is funded through Legacy Link and there is less grant money this year, meaning The Community Service Center will have to consolidate services, conserve fuel and reduce costs to make the grant last. - photo by Tom Reed

Without Meals on Wheels or the Senior Life Center, Gainesville resident Michael Chrystal would spend most of his days sitting at home alone.

Chrystal, who owned a Gainesville wrecker service for years and is now on disability, visits the center five days a week for "fellowship" and depends on Meals on Wheels to provide him with a healthy, tasty supper, he said.

Chrystal is just one of a growing number of seniors in Hall County who rely on services funded by The Hall County Community Service Center's $1.2 million Legacy Link grant.

The grant provides senior services such as Meals on Wheels, meals at the Senior Life Center and Dial-a-Ride, a call-ahead curbside pickup for people without transportation.

The contract for the grant will be signed at Tuesday's City Council meeting, although the service center has already dipped into the grant money to fund food and transport services for seniors.

"We're working on faith," said Phillippa Moss, the community center's director.

The grant's million-plus tab may seem like a lot, but it's a step down in funds from last year. And as need grows among seniors, The Community Service center is getting creative to make ends meet.

"We've had to make a lot of adjustments just to make this work," Moss said.

Every morning, the Meals on Wheels team separates vats of food into separate containers for 300 homebound residents who depend on the daily meals.

Those numbers have dropped from 400 last year, and there is a waiting list of about 120, said Milon Christman, the Meals on Wheels program coordinator.

Hindered by staff cuts, the Senior Life Center cooking staff and the Meals on Wheels staff have "essentially consolidated," their morning efforts to prepare the 300 individual meals, Moss said.

She added that Georgia "ranks eighth in food insecurity among seniors."

"That means senior citizens in our state aren't getting adequate daily nutrition," she said.

In July, the service center changed its Dial-a-Ride operation hours for the senior center from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. to cut costs. Staff members have also considered new routes and modifying hours for other transportation services such as Meals on Wheels, "all in an effort to conserve fuel," Moss said.

An additional hour may also be cut from Hall Area Transit, she added.

The Community Service Center was hit hard in Hall County's 2012 budget, suffering a $120,000 cut.

The cuts worried Ollie Smith, 89, who moved to Gainesville in 1994. She uses Dial-a-Ride for quick trips to the grocery store and visits the Senior Life Center often.

"When they said they may have to cut back or close down, I don't know what I'd do ... We would be lost without these services. It's a blessing," Smith said.

The center is still determining how the cuts will affect their services.

And like the rest of the county, seniors are feeling the impact.

Chrystal, who was at the center Friday and has lived in Gainesville for 70 years, said the county's financial state is one of the worst he can remember.

"It's bottomed out, low as it can go. The way I see it, the Lord will take care of it," he said.

Often, Moss sees seniors in Hall County making choices between healthy meals, medication or mortgage payments. The growing senior population has insufficient income to meet their most basic needs, including food, shelter and medication, she added.

"And a few weeks ago, when Congress was debating the whole debt ceiling issue, we saw an increase in fear among seniors. ... They were all fearful of losing their Social Security checks," Moss said.

Many seniors who expected Social Security as income didn't expect the cost of living and medical expenses to rise as much as they have, she added.

"Their income is simply upside down with their needs," Moss said.

And when money from retirement plans starts to dwindle, Gainesville and Hall County residents need senior services more than ever.

"If they lack sufficient retirement funds through pensions, 401(k)s, and other savings, we will see an increased need of future seniors for programs such as Meals on Wheels and the Senior Life Center," Moss said.