abigail bostwick/lakeland times
The Lake Tomahawk dining site has been seeing declining numbers, causing the Oneida County Aging and Disability Resource Center to consider if it may need to reallocate funds to busier locations. Lake Tomahawk hopes more diners will come in, such as new diner Greg Carlson, left, joining site volunteer Chris Marquard and site manager Elaine Carpenter.
4/23/2019 7:30:00 AM Dining sites 'best kept secret' in Oneida, Vilas counties Low numbers threaten some staying open
Abigail Bostwick Of The Lakeland Times
It's more than just a meal when one visits a local county nutrition dining site - it's also community, laughter and new friendships, indicate area ADRCs (aging and disability resources centers).
Low numbers at some communities, however, means they are at risk of being able to remain open.
"Sites do change as communities change," Oneida County ADRC director Dianne Jacobson said. "(Congregate dining has) been declining for years ... but they are one of the best kept secrets."
Vilas County also has seen declining numbers of attendees at nutrition sites.
"We need to get more people there," Vilas County ADRC board member Audrey Stearns said. "If only that program would be better attended ... the food is so very good and nutritious."
Anyone 60 or older, as well as their spouse, is welcome to visit any meal site. There are no economic qualifications to meet, and all one has to do is call to make a quick and easy reservation a day prior. Some sites offer a choice of meal - such as Lake Tomahawk, which now offers the choice of meal of the day or a chef salad - all of which are catered in. Confidential donations are accepted - and those attending are urged to only give what they can afford. Anyone under the age of 60 also is welcome - with a required donation of $7.46.
"This is not just for poor people or the very elderly," Jacobson pointed out. "People tend to think it's just for much older people or the poor."
ADRC board member Holly Tomlanovich, as well as Stearns, noted there can be a stigma with food sites - misconceptions ranging from age or income beliefs.
"People say, 'I didn't know I could go,'" Stearns said she has heard. "It's for all of us ... it doesn't matter if you make $100,000 per year or $10,000 per year."
Oneida County has seven dining sites while Vilas County has six. Dining sites, like Meals on Wheels (home-delivered meals for primarily homebound) are both state and federally funded and administered by county ADRCs.
When numbers dwindle - as they have in Lake Tomahawk at the Sloan Center - local ADRCs are forced to consider closing those sites and reallocating the dollars to busier locations, Jacobson indicated.
Lake Tomahawk's numbers in recent months have dwindled to just a few on-site diners. That Monday and Wednesday meal site would be a huge loss to the Lake Tomahawk community, town clerk Sharon Trimberger Lintereur said.
"It's fun here, it's social. Not just eating," Trimberger Lintereur said.
Stearns mirrored the same: "Stimulating conversation is healthy."
"Loneliness effects everything," Vilas County ADRC director Sue Richmond said. Meal sites can battle that by connecting friends who may meet there, or drive together, all while getting out of the house and outside and into a relaxing social setting.
St. Germain's meal site is Vilas County's most struggling location, Richmond said.
"I know St. Germain has struggled. Sometimes, there's only three people there," Richmond said. "We hate to close that site down ... but it's not effective with three people. If there are not five people, we may have to have the site manager cancel that day."
Trista Olson, Iron County ADRC director, said while numbers do decline, the main sites in Hurley and Mercer tend to remain strong with 30 to 40 and up to 60 as well as 15 to 20, respectively.
"This time of year is a little lower. As snowbirds return, they'll go up again," Olson said. "Isolation is such a big part of health (for the elderly). It's not just a meal, it's a social place for people to come to."
Nutrition sites are also a place to meet new friends, visit with neighbors and find out what's going on in the community, Olson said.
Iron County has a cook who also serves as site manager at each of its five locations. Its sites offer games, holiday parties and sometimes music.
The co-work between towns and the ADRC is an important one, Jacobson said.
Towns provide the dining site while the ADRC pays for a site manager. Volunteers round out the program to make it work, both at in-site dining and for meals on wheels programs.
"We need all three ... we couldn't do it without the support of our towns," she said. "It's a wonderful partnership."
While Meals on Wheels helps the elderly and disabled stay in their homes, meal sites also help them and others keep social and involved in community.
"The food is excellent," Lake Tomahawk site manager Elaine Carpenter said. "The people are all nice and friendly. It's so much better than eating alone."
Carpenter encouraged people to check with their neighbors and friends - and if they can, offer a ride so they can dining sites together. One can choose whichever community site they'd like to attend.
"The socialization is as critical as the nutrition," Jacobson said. "The effects of social isolation, of being by yourself, have the same negative health impacts of smoking 15 cigarettes (it's been reported). Interaction is very important."
Mercer Senior Center, which is one of Iron County's largest dining sites, noted all sites see some high and low numbers, but they are currently holding well and getting ready for the busier season as snowbirds return to the area, according to president Dorothy Wahner.
"The meals are just wonderful," Wahner said. "People just love it."
Wahner said she continually encourages new visitors and distributes menus widely to reach everyone possible so they can engage at the dining site.
The Mercer Senior Center was closed for a few weeks to assess some roof damage which will be fixed this summer, but is open now and serving as usual.
First-time Lake Tomahawk local diner Greg Carlson said he looks forward to visiting again.
"Thank you," he told Carpenter and volunteer Chris Marquard.
Volunteers are always welcome to check with their ADRC for driving meals on wheels or possibly at the dining sites.
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