Some newcomers to the Mountain View Senior Center survive on little more than cereal and milk – but not because they lack funds.
Many seniors arrive at the center “desperate and hungry, because it’s too much work to grocery shop, cook and clean,” according to Elizabeth Musso, the Community Services Agency’s senior nutrition site manager.
Local seniors may be able to “age in place” or live independently in their own apartments or homes, but many still need a little encouragement to develop healthful eating habits. That nudge used to come from extended family, but more and more adult children and siblings who might cook dinner or do the shopping live far away or are consumed or overwhelmed with their own fast-paced lives.
Musso and her team – a chef, two kitchen workers and a stable of devoted volunteers – attempt to fill that gap through CSA’s Senior Nutrition program, which provides lunches on weekdays.
“If it weren’t for this (program), they would be sitting home munching on snacks,” Musso said of the program’s diners.
Volunteers who support the lunch program contribute a whopping 300-plus hours per month, enabling Musso’s staff to serve approximately 140 lunches daily. The diners’ average age is 76. She said the regulars appreciate the opportunity to enjoy a hot lunch without rushing around to shop and clean up.
The center serves lunch 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays, for a donation of $2.50 per person from those 60 and over. Anyone under 60 pays $5.
By the time volunteers clear the last dessert plate, seniors are filing out of the social hall to attend a class or watch a movie.
Under the auspices of CSA, the center receives municipal, state, federal and county funding to subsidize the lunches. People who pay at the door contribute an estimated 13 percent of the budget.
Musso said her goal is to “help seniors eat healthy food and learn that you can be satisfied” without consuming meals that are high in salt and fat.
What’s for lunch?
Recent menu offerings include salmon with brown rice, steamed spinach, minestrone soup and an apple, and boneless pork chops with salad, whole-grain rolls, vegan split-pea soup, tangerines and sugar-free jello. The staff serves cake to honor those who are celebrating birthdays that month. Of course, Musso shops locally, which means her bill is lower.
Daily menus adhere to Santa Clara County nutritional requirements. For seniors, that means plenty of vitamin A, found in vegetables like carrots, spinach and bell peppers; vitamin C; whole grains; and low amounts of sodium. Musso measures all the ingredients according to county standards, ensuring that there’s no ketchup or soy sauce to increase sodium levels.
She proudly declares the facility a “trans-fat-free zone,” because chemically altered fats increase cholesterol levels. Saturated fats boost LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, and cut HDL, “good” cholesterol, thus contributing to heart disease.
“It’s a double whammy,” Musso said.
Musso asks the seniors what they like to eat – “hands down, they want fish.” That’s fine with her.
“Fish is full of omega-3, so that’s good,” she said.
On days when the menu features fish, the number of diners increases. Any type of soup also earns high marks from customers. Mondays and Fridays are the program’s busiest days.
Musso takes the nutritional aspect of her job very seriously. She said many seniors still request soy sauce, which she doesn’t serve, and there are no second helpings allowed. If there are salad or vegetable leftovers, volunteers offer them.
There’s more to life than food
A nutritious diet helps seniors maintain their health, but Musso stressed that studies report that mental health is just as important as physical well-being for optimal longevity. Isolation and loneliness can accelerate deteriorating health.
A volunteer whose husband passed away “didn’t feel like she had a purpose in life anymore,” according to her concerned daughter. The staff helped her find a support system and a network of friends, Musso said.
“It’s important for anybody to see people during their day,” she said, noting that for many diners, a trip to the senior center may be their only outing of the day. “It can get depressing – it can really take a toll, especially if there’s been a loss.”
To help seniors meet and mingle, the 25,000-square-foot facility at 266 Escuela Ave. offers movies, dancing, billiards and health screenings for Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, poor eyesight and foot problems.
On a recent winter day, a group was playing pool, while others chatted at a round table in the social hall. It was just before the annual holiday party, and festive party bags had taken over the floor in Musso’s office.
In addition to parties and dancing, seniors can choose outings, including day trips to casinos, Saratoga’s Hakone gardens or the theater. Those inclined to cardio activity can register for low-impact aerobics, Zumba, Chinese folk dance, Broadway workout classes, tai chi, Qigong, social or line dancing and yoga. A recent schedule proposed line dancing at 10:30 a.m., with lunch to follow. Musso said dancing is a popular activity at the center.
“Most people are shocked, looking in on the dancing,” she said of the seniors’ energy and enthusiasm. “To me, they look like 20-year-olds.”
Musso said workshops on brain games help clients exercise their minds with mnemonics, which helps improve the memory.
“We’re fortunate to be in a senior center, because there’s a lot of stuff to do, and those activities go hand-in-hand with the lunch program,” she said.
The perfect match
After a year and a half on the job, Musso feels she found the ideal position for her skill set. Raised in Redwood City in an Italian family where food was “a big deal,” she recalls her sister reading labels on food packaging. Her Sicilian mother made impressive lasagna that Musso adapted to contain less fat. She graduated from Chico State University with a bachelor’s in nutrition and food sciences and an option in dietetics, and she likes educating others about nutrition. She schedules monthly lectures on cholesterol, osteoporosis and the benefits of shopping at the local farmers’ market.
As a teenager, Musso volunteered at Redwood City’s Woodside Terrace senior home. She enjoys hearing seniors tell their stories.
“For them to have someone to listen to them, it makes them feel good,” she said.
The bus stops here
Many seniors who attend the program still drive their own cars, but others take the bus, which stops directly in front of the Mountain View Senior Center. Attendees also arrive in carpools, and an Outreach van is available to pick up the homebound.
For more information, call 968-0836 or visit www.csacares.org.