Birthdays celebrated. Losses mourned. Community strengthened. All over a midday meal.

Meal service begins at noon, yet by 10 a.m., lunchtime diners start to arrive at the Council on Aging’s dining hall in Bend. They sit together at the community tables for a chance to socialize and connect before lunch. To share baked goods. Sip coffee. Play cards. Show-off talents. Someone brings in an old accordion, and an impromptu performance ensues—the diners on their feet, dancing and singing along. But these free senior lunches offer more than just food, the benefits to seniors include overcoming social isolation, loneliness, food insecurity, and nutritional risk.

Help and community connection for seniors in Central Oregon
Every week, Brad Livsey drives from his home in Sisters to meet friends at the Council on Aging’s senior lunch in Bend. “It provides a space to connect and socialize, which is nice, because I live alone,” he says. “It’s worth the $8.50 in gas to get here and back. It feels like home.” Afterwards, he drives less mobile friends around town to do errands and pick up groceries. “We help each other. That’s what it’s all about.”

No-Cost Lunches to Support Seniors

The community meals are all about two things: Lunch and Time. For some clients, it’s a weekly pleasure. For others, the free senior lunches are an economic necessity as more of Central Oregon’s older adults struggle to live on fixed incomes. The Council on Aging manages and/or funds these tasty, warm meals, served in the company of friends old and new, at senior centers across Central Oregon. The senior lunch is free to those over 60, although many choose to donate to cover the cost of the meals and ensure service can continue.

Recently, we asked our lunchtime diners in Bend to tell us why they attend. Their answers, written on paper plates, fell into two categories: the need for nutritional support, and the chance to connect with others, especially as many of the diners live alone. “I’m here for the smiles and raised eyebrows,” wrote one diner who enjoys catching up on gossip. “Can’t cook much anymore. Legs too weak,” declared another. One diner simply spelled out, “Not any money to buy food.”

Overcoming social isolation, food insecurity and hunger with a free meal for seniors in Central Oregon

Life happens at these community lunches. Diners are excited to bring guests—friends and family visiting from out of town—and to introduce them to the regulars. Even romance has blossomed during these times of social connection; at least two couples have fallen in love to the sound of chinking china and chatter. Grief finds a place at the table, in addition, when spouses or even children are outlived. Mourners find comfort in familiar faces and open arms.

Free senior meal in Bend, Community Food and Friendship Stories

The Importance of Table Service

Of course, food is eaten. The baked potato bar is a favorite, with monthly senior lunch menus developed specifically for older adult nutrition needs. Dozens of “foodie” volunteers donate generous amounts of time cooking for the older adult community diners and serving them at the table. There is no standing in line or juggling of trays, which means diners can simply sit back and engage with others.

“We honor everyone’s ability, so that those with physical limitations aren’t struggling to collect their meal,” said Bernadette Handley, nutrition operations manager for the Council on Aging. “It’s a gesture of respect, so our older adult neighbors can dine with dignity and ease.” For some of them, this is the healthiest meal they will eat all week—and perhaps the only one that is guaranteed. Each week’s menu, designed by Handley, meets the unique nutritional needs of older adults.

Intergenerational Connection at the Dining Table

Family members are invited too. One teenager brings his grandmother each week. Other diners show off their grand-kids while giving parents a much-needed break. Intergenerational connection can be beneficial for parties young and old. Research suggests there are multiple benefits from eating together: healthier weight, better emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviors towards others, and higher life satisfaction overall.

And that’s something we can all fill up on.

How to Get Involved

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