Hungry in the West End

A new web-based series is showing the problem of isolated seniors in Providence.


When John Martin transitioned his father from the house he grew up in into assisted living, he didn’t recognize the signs that his father wasn’t eating well.

Martin lived 1,500 miles away, and “when I would go to visit him, the most exciting part of the visit for him was going to the all-you-can-eat Country Buffet. And he would chow down. It just did not click to me that if I looked in his refrigerator, it was not the quantity or the quality of foods that he really enjoyed.”

It’s not that his father didn’t have the money. He wasn’t eating well because he was frugal and because he was bored with the few things like bologna sandwiches and canned soup that he could prepare, Martin says.

At the time, Martin, a longtime journalist, didn’t understand the dynamics of senior hunger. More recently, though, through his work with AARP Rhode Island, he’s learned a lot more about it through an ongoing project called "Hungry in the West End."

Focusing on the “most distressed” neighborhood in Providence and the state as a whole, Martin has been working on the series with fellow former Providence Journal reporter Jody McPhillips. His videos and her stories show the experience of some seniors who are isolated and in some cases disabled or homebound, and who sometimes go hungry — and the people who are working to assist them.

“These are not people looking for the economic recovery,” Martin says. “They are not looking for new jobs. They are not out of work. They’re old."

They live independently in their homes, “which the state certainly sees as a good thing because it keeps people out of the Medicaid nursing homes, and for many people it’s very comfortable living,” Martin says.

“But there comes a time when you are independent and you can live alone, but maybe you can’t shop or stand at the stove. Or maybe your kids have said, ‘Mom, you just have to stop cooking on the stove. You’ve had too many pots boil over, too many messes, too many smoke alarms going off…' ”

Outreach efforts to provide more seniors on fixed incomes with aid have helped, but Martin says “there is a question of pride. They work very hard to avoid food stamps. It’s partly because they grew up during the Depression or at the end of the Depression. For some people, it’s a matter of they’re defending their dignity.”

One of the things that makes the Meals on Wheels program successful, Martin says, is that people are asked to make a donation, so “they feel like it’s an economy rather than a handout.”

Seniors are careful with their dollars because even if they are receiving benefits, they are watching their savings dwindle down, Martin says. And even if a person receives Social Security, unless a person worked for thirty years non-stop at a high-paying job, they’re not likely to see $2,300 a month, but rather maybe $400 to $600.

And part of the problem is that isolated seniors aren’t easy to find. He hopes that the series helps get the word out about what resources are available. And maybe watching the videos will help grown children think to ask their elderly parents what’s in their fridge.

“We’re out there at the first sign of snow to shovel the sidewalk, we have her to our house every holiday, she comes to the birthday parties, but how’s she eating?”

Or even if you don’t have older relatives, you can help out in a variety of ways, by volunteering at a food bank or as a driver for Meals on Wheels, Martin says, or just asking the woman who lives next door whether you could pick something up for her at the store or inviting her over for dinner.

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