The Thursday lunch menu at the John Day Senior Center earlier this spring called for meatloaf, scalloped potatoes and vegetables. With birthday cake donated by the local funeral home in case anyone might be celebrating that month.
Angie Uptmor, who manages the senior program, laughed and said she didn’t think the funeral home was trying to drum up business by donating a cake.
I talked to Uptmor while working on the article about rural grocery stores that’s also in this edition of The Other Oregon. One thing always leads to another in journalism, and I was reminded again how urban and rural Oregon have similar concerns. Every part of the state struggles to provide food, shelter, healthcare and transportation for seniors and other vulnerable residents.
The scale is different, of course, with the legions of disconnected dudes living in tarp cities under Portland’s freeway overpasses being the most obvious example.
And rural counties have older populations, on average, with fewer resources. Sherman, Gilliam and Wheeler counties, strung side by side in North Central Oregon, don’t have hospitals.
In Eastern Oregon, particularly, community workers such as Uptmor have to make do, help each other out and wear as many hats as it takes to get the job done.
John Day is the Grant County seat and has a population of just under 1,700. The county has senior centers in John Day, Monument and Prairie City. Each has a cook and an assistant cook, and Uptmor supervises those six people.
She also coordinates Oregon Project Independence programs, which are intended to help seniors stay in their homes. A housing rehab program provides no-interest loans for home repair; the loans don’t have to be paid back until the property changes ownership. The energy assistance program pays electric, oil and wood heat bills in cold weather. Uptmor said the county needs more respite care for those who need a break from taking care of elderly relatives. She spends time on legal guardianship cases, when seniors can’t take care of themselves and someone has to step in.
Uptmor said she has a senior center phone in front of her and a county phone behind her and answers them both.
She’s a county employee but works in a web of public and private partnerships, resource sharing and combined funding sources. Community Connection of Northeast Oregon Inc., a non-profit based in La Grande, contracts with Union, Grant, Baker and Wallowa counties to handle much of the paperwork, training and grant money distribution.
For the most part, it works.
The John Day Senior Center serves lunch Mondays and Thursdays, and mealtimes are fairly busy. Meatloaf day brought a crowd of 48, some of whom came specifically for the meal but others who were there more for the company. Some of the seniors were accompanied by friends or family members, who drove them in, and some arrived on the senior van that circulates through the area. After lunch, people played Bridge and Bingo.
“It’s a social hangout, which it should be,” Uptmor said. Uptmor said she knows how seniors hang on in John Day.
“Portland? I have no idea,” she said. “That area probably has more resources.
“But I think we serve the same population,” she said. “We are an aging community. Many live on Social Security and it’s just tough.”