Seniors are on the rise in America. The number of people aged 65 and older is projected to increase from 58 million in 2002 to 82 million by 2050, a 47 percent increase. And groups like Homage Senior Services are on the leading edge of serving this growing population.

Homage is one of the leading senior services organizations in the state of Washington. The group, based in Snohomish County, just north of Seattle, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Homage serves 25,000 people each year with food and nutrition, health and wellness, home repair, social services and transportation.

Regence’s corporate foundation, Cambia Health Foundation, was proud to make a recent investment in Homage with a grant to support mental health services for older adults.

In this episode of the HealthChangers podcast, host Ashley Bach spoke with Keith Bell, the CEO of Homage Senior Services, about the group’s mission. Bell also talked about the evolving needs of adults 65 and over, including the growing need for mental health services.

Listen to the full podcast episode on the player above. Below are some highlights, which have been edited for length and clarity.

AB: I was struck by it not just Homage’s long history in the community – 50 years – but the breadth of your service. What is Homage’s mission, and how do you accomplish it?

KB: Homage’s mission is to promote independence, preserve dignity, and enhance the quality of life through the provision of services for older adults and people with disabilities. One of our biggest advantages is that we provide a pretty comprehensive safety net of services. So, what may start as a leaky faucet being fixed by our home repair team may lead to much needed nutrition support because there's no food in the fridge. How we accomplish this is through the generosity of foundations like the Cambia Health Foundation, and donations from people in our community.

AB: Homage serves 25,000 people a year.  What are some examples of ways that Homage has helped and connected with individuals over the last few years? You must hear those personal stories and testimonials all the time.

KB: That's what keeps me coming back. There are so, so many ways. And no matter what our program is, the common thread is that people often have been struggling for a very long time. By the time we get to them, they begin to feel like someone cares about them. There are a few stories that I’d really like to share with you. Our Meals on Wheels drivers are more than just drivers; in many cases, when they deliver meals, they're the only human contact that some of our seniors have in that week. Our drivers do a lot more than just drop off meals, they have conversation, they'll do a minute of assessment while they're there. And if they're having that conversation and they feel like someone is in need of other services, they will call back into the office and one of our folks will get in touch with that particular senior and we’ll figure out if there are other services that we can provide.

We had a longtime Meals on Wheels driver who had been providing meals to a couple for a long time, and the woman in the couple passed away. When she passed away, our driver attended the memorial service to support the husband and continues to this day to deliver meals there and stay in and have conversation.

Another recent story was a 62 year-old woman who had contacted Homage for our mental health program. She needed to get back to feeling like she was herself again. And what she wrote was, she said, “I'm a caregiver by nature, and a relatively happy go-lucky person. But during the pandemic, I suffered greatly and fell into a deep despair. I was raising my grandchild and feeling anxious, stressed and overwhelmed by all that was happening in the world. It took a huge toll on me, which led me to feel lonely and isolated.” We connected this person with our mental health team. We have a cultural center throughout the week where we have different cultural groups come in, and she's joined our Filipino group, and our transportation division picks her up from home and brings her in and drops her off. These are just some samples of the stories that we get on a daily basis here at Homage.

AB: How have the needs of seniors changed in recent years?

KB: Coming out of the pandemic, since 2019, we have seen a dramatic increase in demand for many of our programs, especially in nutrition and mental health services. With nutrition, we've served 36 percent more meals in 2023 than we did in 2019, both with our home-delivered meals and Meals on Wheels program. We're now providing lunches in 11 senior centers throughout Snohomish County. And in this last year, we provided over 400,000 meals. Right now, we have a waiting list of over 250 homebound seniors and adults with disabilities for Meals on Wheels. That is the largest waiting list we've had in quite some time.

Loneliness and isolation, depression, grief and anxiety have been issues for the aging population; we're just seeing these issues in greater numbers, with still very limited resources (for groups to help). The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) published an advisory on what they are calling an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. The advisory states that “loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling. It harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity.” That's what we're seeing — seniors suffering from loneliness, isolation, depression and anxiety and in greater numbers.

AB: Some seniors at home may less support than younger populations. Is the epidemic of loneliness more pronounced among seniors?

KB: Absolutely. We serve the most vulnerable seniors. And what we're seeing is that there is no family for most of the seniors or if there are, they're far away and are not active in their lives. And we see a lot of depression. We try through our cultural centers to get people in. We'll go out and pick folks up from their home. If someone needs to see a friend or a family member who they haven't seen in a while, we'll pick them up and we'll provide that service. So we're trying to extend our services to help seniors get out and be socially connected in whatever way they can.

AB: There is much more awareness now of mental health needs, but that wasn’t true for many decades. Is it harder breaking the stigma with an older population?

KB: Prior to the pandemic, there was a stigma and it was harder. I think the pandemic brought us a lot of hurt and pain. But maybe one of the good things that came of the pandemic is that people are talking about mental health, and seniors are asking for help. We've seen a dramatic increase in people asking for mental health. I think people are okay with saying, “I need help.” The issue is resources. Mental health counselors are extremely busy, and overworked. And quite frankly, a lot of the mental health counselors are burned out.

AB: Regence’s corporate foundation, Cambia Health Foundation, recently gave a grant to Homage to support mental health services for older adults, especially those who live in more rural areas. Can you tell me about that grant and how it will support your mission?

KB: The grant that we received from the Cambia Health Foundation allowed us to hire additional mental health specialists and expand our mental health support for older adults at senior centers throughout Snohomish County. Since we've hired a new staff member in January of this year, we've launched partnerships in six rural senior centers and in one rural library, providing mental health services for adults in about ten total senior centers in Snohomish County. The work that we're doing includes depression screening, or short-term counseling if needed. And for a lot of clients, just having someone to talk to you helps them with problem solving the challenges they may have that impact their ability to live a full, independent life. So we are extremely grateful for the grant because we've been able to significantly expand our mental health services out in the community.

AB: The number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to increase from 58 million in 2002 to 82 million by 2050, which is a 47 percent increase. The 65 and older age group’s share of the total population is projected to rise from 17 percent to 23 percent. The older population is also becoming more racially diverse. With a population that's living longer, do younger generations need to be thinking more about how to take care of their parents? Should more senior care facilities be built? And organizations like Homage be expanded?

KB: The answer to those questions is yes, yes, and yes. I think people should stop and take a look at what's happening. Since 2010, we've had 10,000 people a day turning 65 in the U.S.; that is going to continue until 2030. This year alone, in 2024, we will have 12,000 people a day turn 65. By the end of this year, 4 million people will have turned 65.

Right now, in Snohomish County, the fastest segment of the population who are homeless is seniors. And we're seeing seniors living in their cars. So yes, we have a serious issue. It isn’t academic. I think the CDC has done a really good job of putting out an advisory about what is happening in this country with loneliness. We have a significant problem. Resources are short, and we need help. And we're going to continue to do everything we can in our power to be of service.