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WATCH: Area Agency on Aging hands out last free meals

Calls for new senior center by Brandon Smith | August 2, 2022 at 4:05 a.m.
A sign out front of the Area Agency on Aging, at 905 West Grand Ave., notes Monday as the last day to receive free curbside meals. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record

After providing free meals to the local elderly every week for the last two years, the Area Agency on Aging handed out its last free meal on Monday due to a lack of funding.

While Hot Springs has not had a dedicated senior center since 2018, the agency began providing curbside meals at its 905 West Grand Ave. location in July 2020 following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Handing out an average of 1,700 meals a month through the parking lot, they gave out over 20,000 last fiscal year, providing one hot meal every Monday along with four frozen meals for the rest of the week.

"We don't have a senior center in Hot Springs, so there really wasn't any other way for people to go get their meals -- where they would normally go to the senior center and eat their meals and that kind of thing," Area Agency on Aging Executive Director Barbara Flowers said.

"So we started curbside and there was funding until the end of June. ... But it's meant so much to these people. It's really meant a lot to them that they had a place to come and get these meals, especially through the pandemic. You know, and it's sad that this is our last day," she said.

The Area Agency on Aging of West Central Arkansas is a private nonprofit charitable organization that provides information, referral services, and other services for seniors 60 and older. The agency covers 10 counties, including Garland, Clark, Conway, Hot Spring, Johnson, Montgomery, Perry, Pike, Pope, and Yell counties.

Elvis Britt said he has been coming for about the last six months.

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"A lot of people appreciate it. They need it, you know, and I enjoy it. It's good food. I live in a public assistance house and so it helps me out with my meals every day. If I get low with stuff I have in there, these meals help out quite a bit," he said.

In the meantime, Britt said he plans on signing up for Meals on Wheels through his housing program.

CHI St. Vincent is the program's subcontractor, Flowers noted, and paid for the meals through the end of July.

"They took care of that and we appreciate them doing that so much," she said. "So that's kind of the relationship. A lot of people don't understand, as area agencies, we have contractors that actually operate our senior centers throughout our region."

There hasn't been a permanent center in Hot Springs since 2018 when it was located at the armory, Flowers said, "And because of the age of the building and renovations that were needed, we had to close the armory down. We had a temporary center at the events center on Broadway for about a year and CHI St. Vincent leased that so that we'd be able to have that location. But honestly, what we need is we need a permanent location."

The Hot Springs Senior Center temporarily closed its doors at the old Hot Springs National Guard Armory at 210 Woodbine St., in early 2018, after problems developed with roof leaks and mold issues. Mercy Hospital, now CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs, had operated the center there since 1991.

While The Warehouse at 301 Broadway St. served as a temporary site, the hospital did continue to provide -- and still does -- services at the McAuley Center in Hot Springs Village.

"We have a senior center in Hot Springs Village, which is a wonderful center, and it's owned by CHI St. Vincent, but the people that are coming through here, that's just not a viable option for them to drive to Hot Springs Village every day to go to the center, you know," she said. "And maybe some of the folks here in Hot Springs do, but like I said, it's really nice to have wonderful scheduled programming, but we need a center here. I don't know how many calls we get, saying, 'When are we going to get a senior center?' 'When are we going to get a senior center?'"

Flowers said the agency is looking for "anybody" that can help them find a location.

"We need a building. We need a location. CHI St. Vincent will operate it. They do the hiring of the employees, they fix the meals, send out the home delivery meals, but we need a location. That's what we need," she said.

Out of the 13 senior centers that the Area Agency on Aging has in its 10-county region, 10 of those are either owned by the county or city, or a partnership of them both. She noted she would ideally like to see a partnership between Garland County and the City of Hot Springs to provide a space for the local seniors to go during the week and get their meals, socialize, and receive information on well-being. Centers, she said, provide so much more than meals.

"They provide education, they have speakers come in, exercises, you know, just there's so many benefits to having a senior center, and we just think that these participants that have been driving through here every Monday for the last two years deserve a place to go," she said.

Local senior resident Joy Gray said she started going to the senior center at at the old armory when she turned 60.

"And that was eight years ago," she said. "I really enjoyed the camaraderie and getting to visit with people and make new friends. I heard that Malvern really has a good senior center and I think that Hot Springs needs theirs back, because we had a good one. Being able to visit with people your age is important and they had different activities that we could do also and that was nice."

Flowers said she understands that so much of the local dollars are spent on tourism, but noted Hot Springs is also a retirement destination.

"One story that, especially, made me really sad, is a lady drove all the way down here from Missouri because her parents were like in their 80s and 90s. She drove all the way here to get them enrolled in a senior center. She got here; there's no senior center. And she was pretty upset. ... So, you know, it's stories like that. And we know what it does for someone's well-being and quality of life, so we just hope to see some action," she said.

"If the county and city or maybe the Oaklawn Foundation, if some folks like that could get together, just find us a location, that would be awesome," she said.

  photo  Area Agency on Aging Executive Director Barbara Flowers talks about Monday being the last day for curbside meals and the need for a dedicated senior center. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record

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