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Surviving in retirement with Meals on Wheels to fill the gaps

For retirees in one county, enough food is not in the budget

Meals on Wheels volunteers John and Lois Sparr

Meals on Wheels volunteers John and Lois Sparr start the delivery of frozen meals in Renton, Wash. Photo Credit: TNS / Alan Berner

Their first stop was Paul Alexander’s place. He is 68, a retired bank-loan processor. By the federal poverty marker, Alexander is doing pretty well.

His monthly retirement math breaks down like this: Social Security, $1,800. Citibank pension, $359. That totals $2,159.

His apartment and utilities in a senior-living complex cost $1,276 a month. He spends $99 monthly for low-income health coverage and $50 for his cellphone.

That leaves $481 a month for everything else. Not being able to get around much because he needs a hip replacement, Alexander watches a lot of TV. That’s around $50 a month for basic channels.

He lives with his cat, Bart, who doesn’t show his presence to visitors. In his family, he says, there is an adult disabled son, a stepdaughter, a former wife from long ago.

The feds have poverty for an individual at an income of $12,060 a year, and Alexander is at $25,908, twice as much. So this is one version of the American dream.

For him, it means using the Sound Generations Meals on Wheels program, which last year delivered some 410,000 meals to more than 2,300 people.

The need is acute with baby boomers retiring. A 2008 projection expected King County, Washington’s senior population to double by 2025.

Boomers haven’t exactly planned ahead. Only 55 percent have saved any money for retirement, according to the Insured Retirement Institute, a nonprofit composed of 150,000 finance professionals.

Once, a few years ago, Alexander had $30,000 in savings from the sale of his home. That $30,000 just kept getting smaller and smaller, with this and that in expenses.

“I’d say I had a good life,” says Alexander, who’s not given to He is the first stop for John and Lois Sparr, who every Wednesday bring Alexander his nine frozen Meals on Wheels.

He always requests nine meals, from choices such as pork patty, chicken casserole, Swedish meatballs, burrito or baked fish.

John Sparr is 76; Lois is 75. They have done all right, they’re in good physical shape, and now they say they’re giving back.

John retired as an executive for the Anheuser-Busch distributor in Palm Springs, California. The couple moved up to this area “because that’s where the grandkids are.”

Every Wednesday morning, they show up at the Renton Senior Activity Center and wait for the arrival of a van loaded with the frozen meals.

On this day, 559 meals arrive, and they are stacked and sorted on tables for the 45 people getting the food. They can order seven or 14 meals, and some households, with a couple, get double that amount.

Then meals are sorted into canvas bags, and off go the 10 volunteer drivers.

Former nurse Janice Jones, 64, lives in the same complex as Alexander. Her total monthly income is “$800 to $900” in Social Security. Her apartment is subsidized at $160 a month.

A couple of years ago, she had a stroke and now gets around in an electric wheelchair.

To save money, she only has broadcast TV, but there are places in the building where you can watch cable TV. “I’m a social person,” says Jones.

At that income of $800 to $900 a month, she’s below the poverty line. If Jones was a year older, 65, she’d be among 1 in 10 seniors counted as living in poverty in this county.

That’s the overall average. Jones is African-American, and for seniors in that group, 1 in 5 are in poverty.

A short ride away is the home of Elizabeth Vawter, 64, and her brother, David Vawter, 67. His last job was doing emission testing for cars until three years ago. She says she worked in retail until she took early retirement to take care of their parents, now deceased. They’ve ordered 14 frozen-food items.

Their combined Social Security income is a little over $1,900 a month. There are no savings.

Elizabeth talks about a family home in Ballard owned by their parents. She tells about mortgage problems, and how it was lost. Life derailed is a common thread among many Meals on Wheels clients.

The rent on their home is $1,500 a month. They used to split it with Elizabeth’s daughter, but she’s moving out. It’s tough to envision a new renter in the cluttered three-bedroom home. Elizabeth says they’re in the process of sorting items that the daughter would take, and items that belonged to the parents, and so on.

This is the third year the Sparrs have making Meals on Wheels rounds. Does it get depressing?

“We might think it’s a little depressing,” says John Sparr. “I know they’re in tough conditions. They don’t show it.”

The political discussion these days is about entitlement programs and safety-net programs and what gets cut.

Then there are the facts on the ground.

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